A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (G&S 33)
Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard (G&S 33)
Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1950 by Neil Wilson (G&S 32)
Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas (TV readings) (G&S 32)
The Angry Dead by Mary Ann Allen (G&S 31)
On the Fringe for Thirty Years: A History of Horror in the British Small Press by David Sutton
Dark Matters by Terry Lamsley (G&S 31)
Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter
The Lost Will of Dr Rant (TV play) (G&S 30)
The Collected Strange Stories of Robert Aickman (G&S 30)
In Violet Veils and other tales of the Connoisseur by Mark Valentine (G&S 29)
Ghosts and Grisly Things by Ramsey Campbell (G&S 29)
The Phantom Coach and Other Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by Augustus Jessopp (G&S 28)
Skeletons In The Closet by William I.I. Read (G&S 28)
Go to Page Two for Reviews
M.R. James: An Informal Portrait by Michael Cox (G&S 6)
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James selected and introduced by Michael Cox; M.R. James: 'Casting the Runes' and Other Ghost Stories edited and introduced by Michael Cox; A Warning to the Curious: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James selected and introduced by Ruth Rendell (G&S 9)
M.R. James - Two Ghost Stories: A Centenary edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden (G&S 17)
The Five Jars by M.R. James (G&S 20)
A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James (TV documentary) (G&S 21)
Click here for "Events Reviews" of David Benson's Haunted Stage (Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2004); the M.R. James Double Bill (Lawrence Gordon Clark's "The Ash Tree" and "Casting the Runes") at the National Film Theatre on November 21, 2000; and Jeremy Dyson's dramatisation of Robert Aickman's The Cicerones.
The complete supernatural writings of M.R. James? MRJ enthusiasts have long had to tolerate collections of his stories with Complete in their titles, which turn out to be far from fulfilling the promise of that adjective. You could therefore be excused for being a little wary on seeing the subtitle of A Pleasing Terror. But Ash-Tree have checked and double-checked to ensure that they've included everything possible, and I can't spot any omissions as far as his writings within and about the supernatural fiction genre are concerned. It's true to say that some of MRJ's more academic work also dealt with the supernatural: the demons in The Testament of Solomon; the argument in The Times over whether the artist of an Aix-en-Provence Annunciation was a Satanist; as well as angels, saints and miracles aplenty. But, especially considering the vast size of the present book, only the most obsessive pedant would argue that these exclusions render the title inaccurate.
The MRJ material in A Pleasing Terror begins with the twenty-six stories from his four original collections, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories. MRJ's brief prefaces to the volumes are placed at the start of their respective blocks of tales, to give them context. The next section is "Other Ghost Stories", headed by the preface to the Collected Ghost Stories, and including the four tales from that book plus "The Experiment", "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" and "A Vignette". In "Fragments" are all the unfinished and/or unpolished drafts (formerly published together in the Haunted Library's The Fenstanton Witch) - seven in total. Standing alone before the next section is the "Twelve Medieval Ghost-stories": the translation from Hugh Lamb's The Man-Wolf (1978), but with a number of corrections and improvements (e.g. the 'beautiful house' in Story X has, thankfully, been corrected to a 'beautiful horse'!).
"Articles" contains eleven items, from the familiar "Stories I Have Tried to Write", through Monty's important articles like "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", and his lecture on J. Sheridan Le Fanu, to a little bundle of his introductions/epilogues to Ghosts & Marvels, Madam Crowl's Ghost, etc. There are relevant selections from his letters to Gwendolen McBryde in Letters to a Friend (1956) - a valuable compilation, this, as the original book doesn't have an index! - and a reprint of the delightful "Letters to a Child" (to Sibyl Cropper). These lead seamlessly into the complete text of MRJ's children's fantasy novel The Five Jars - a gem which still hasn't gotten the notice it deserves.
The final item by MRJ himself is one which receives its first-ever reprint here, having been pretty much ignored for seventy-five years. "Auditor and Impresario" is a dull sounding title, but it hides another gem: MRJ's parody of Marlowe's Dr Faustus. It was written to be performed by the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club in 1907, but not published until 1927 in the Cambridge Review. I recommend reading this in parallel with Dr Faustus to see just how clever the spoof is, but it's still hilarious even if read on its own (and in complete ignorance of the original). Knowledge of college politics in Cambridge at that time is not a requirement!
A Pleasing Terror doesn't end here, however. There are five appendixes reprinting three articles from Ghosts & Scholars ("James Wilson's Secret", "The Black Pilgrimage" and "Ghosts in Medieval Yorkshire"); the significant "An M.R. James Letter" from The Fenstanton Witch and G&S 8; and Samuel D. Russell's lengthy early essay "Irony and Horror: The Art of M.R. James" (a good, sometimes controversial piece, originally from The Acolyte in 1945 and reprinted by the Ghost Story Society in 1993). The book finishes up with my "M.R. James on Film, Radio, and Television" (the list from G&S 19 which I've been keeping up-to-date on the G&S web site) and "M.R. James: A Select Bibliography" (based on my extensive "Select Bibliography of Writings on M.R. James's Ghost Stories", also on this site).
For the remaining material about rather than by MRJ, we must return to the beginning of the book. Barbara and Christopher Roden provide a pleasant, scene-setting preface (which is deeply flattering to G&S - thanks, guys!), while the thoughtful and intelligent introduction is by Steve Duffy. He takes the manuscript of "A Warning to the Curious", and the topographical anomalies of that tale, as a starting point for an examination of why MRJ was so dismissive of the importance of his own ghost stories, when they clearly covered subjects very close to his heart; subjects which formed an integral part of much of his 'serious' scholarly researches and writings. Although these topographical anomalies and confusions were only touched upon in my G&S 32 article, "The Manuscript of 'A Warning to the Curious'", Steve is quite right to draw attention to them.
After the introduction, A Pleasing Terror continues with the first reprint of S.G. Lubbock's A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (1939), a charming little work by one of Monty's best friends. It's true that it only mentions the ghost stories fairly briefly, but it deserves inclusion, especially as it's hard to find and expensive in the original.
Throughout this volume, the superb artwork of Paul Lowe enhances each one of the completed stories: thirty-three illustrations in all, some reprinted from G&S and All Hallows, but others produced especially for the book. His full-colour dust-jacket, inspired by "The Tractate Middoth", is a classic. All of the stories and drafts (and the "Twelve Medieval Ghost-stories" among others) are also annotated. For the former, Ash-Tree have combined Michael Cox's notes on the twenty-one tales in Casting the Runes (1987) with those for the remainder, which appeared as a series in G&S. Errors and omissions from the original notes have been corrected and additional material gathered from various locations, including from some holograph manuscripts not consulted by Cox. New notes (such as a possible link between the real Tractate Middoth and the Livermere area) were being inserted right up to deadline day. Inevitably there are gaps: for instance, the identity of Aldsey in "Oh, Whistle" (no, it's not Aldeburgh but Bawdsey) was spotted just post-deadline; and we forgot to reference "Thou shalt seek me in the morning" in "The Ash-tree" (it's Job 7, v.21). There will always be gaps - thank goodness - as there is so much research still to be done on MRJ's sources, etc. But as representatives of the current 'state of play', these annotations form an absolutely vital part of the text.
To be honest, I'm not even sure why A Pleasing Terror needs a review here - certainly not one this long. Shouldn't "it's everything we hoped it would be" suffice to encourage every single G&S reader to invest in a copy? At £50 for over 700 pages it's superb value for money too. Does finally having the entire corpus of MRJ's writings in and about the supernatural fiction genre together in one place give us any further insights into why he wrote what he wrote? I couldn't really say at this stage, but one thing's for sure: if there are further insights to be gained, it's going to make them a lot easier to come by in the future.
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Born in London in 1889 of glum and repressive Anglo-Irish stock, Gerald Heard came to the end of his days some eighty-two years later... as what, precisely? To call him a magus seems a bit pretentious; polymath suggests the breadth of his interests, but doesn't really seem to cover the depth of his intentions. And to call him an educator hardly does justice to his talent to entertain. John Cody, in his Introduction to this book, describes Heard as a "magic mythmaker"; well, it's not the sort of thing you'd necessarily put on your passport, but perhaps it comes closer to the truth than any of the above.
At Cambridge, Heard studied history and the philosophy of religion; he spent the next couple of decades shuttling between the worlds of politics and literature. Like Huxley and Auden and Isherwood, he heard the sirens singing from across the Atlantic, and relocated to Los Angeles in 1937. Here, he was instrumental in the establishment of what has subsequently become (along with computer technology and the movies) California's most characteristic industry: the mind-body-spirit movement. At Heard's Trabuco research/meditation centre, Eastern and Western mysticism mingled with psychedelic experimentation and hard scientific research, swamis rubbed shoulders with psychologists, clerics with showbiz celebrities. If, like its more professional yet far less interesting successors in the field of personal growth, Trabuco had a "mission statement", then it might well have been the overarching conviction of its founder (here again I quote John Cody's fascinating and most helpful Introduction): "that the cosmos and human lives are possessed of meaning, purpose and vast reserves of energies that we might tap to meet with 'creative initiative' the choices, ordeals and initiation challenges of unlimited growth."
Which is one way of saying that Heard had a mission. Now when it comes to creative writing, this is not always the most auspicious of beginnings; too often, those who have a Message end up writing, not fiction, but polemic - see here pretty much the entire oeuvre of Colin Wilson, for example. So, in approaching this collection of Heard's short fiction, what do we find? Thankfully, it's mostly good news. For the most part Heard the instructor takes a back seat to Heard the entertainer: while there is a Wells-y sort of didacticism to such science-fiction pieces as "The Great Fog", "Wingless Victory" and "Eclipse", in the best of these tales we find narrative driven along by character and plot, not just by that-which-is-to-be-proved. Several of the stories in Dromenon include supernatural themes, and it's on these we'll concentrate - though I should emphasise that all the stories are very much worth reading. Heard was interested in supernatural fiction, "in which you confront the terrors at the back of your mind", partly as a way of evoking the opposite and complementary emotions, those of awe and wonder (thus passing through the Chapel Perilous and arriving at self-knowledge, wisdom and growth). To this end he wrote such tales as "The Cup", "Dromenon", and probably the finest of the selections included here, "The Chapel of Ease"; all three have, to a greater or lesser degree, Jamesian touches.
"The Cup" is the confession of a former forger and thief: having relieved Saxlin Abbey of a very fine Tiepolo, he plans to repeat the trick with an Armenian Nestorian chalice. He's foiled in this endeavour by the intervention of Something indescribably malevolent... something midway between the worlds of James and Lovecraft. This hideous Whatever-it-is - a tentacled void, a sentient abyss, call it what you will - is lurking on a lonely country lane, close behind the priest bearing the chalice on a late-night mercy call. Our would-be waylayer is terrified almost out of his wits, but the faith of the priest wins through, and the whole experience is enough to bring the penitent thief not just to repentance, but to the priesthood, and thus to legitimate custody of the miraculous chalice.
"Dromenon" begins in a very Jamesian way, as we're introduced to a memorandum from the journal of the late Sylvester Shelbourne, an antiquarian lately engaged in a study of the cathedral and collegiate church of St Aidans on the Welsh borders. The story develops promisingly, as the antiquarian discovers mystifying secrets within the structure of the cathedral, passages and labyrinths and weirdly-etched ashlars. Sounds echo oddly within this space; soon, the very fabric of time and space is slipping... slipping, in point of fact, away from the strictly Jamesian towards the Lovecraftian depths of illimitable space. Actually, I exaggerate somewhat: this is not really reminiscent of HPL in his gruesome penny-dreadful mode, but it does remind me of his more meditative, wonderstruck passages, for instance in "The Shadow Out of Time". As suggested above, awe, not repulsion, is the dominant sentiment Heard is seeking to evoke, and here he certainly succeeds.
There is real horror (by which I mean physical dread, fear for one's bodily well-being) in "The Chapel of Ease", and yet here too horror gives way to terror (a more diffuse, less corporeal sensation), and this in turn to awe, the truest and most appropriate response to the Infinite. The setting is wartime England; the hero a civil servant burnt-out by the exigencies of his job. He finds temporary sanctuary in what seems at first a deserted countryside chapel, not realising till it's altogether too late that such places are usually - in our sort of story, at least - deserted for a very good reason. Visiting the chapel at dusk, our protagonist does not want for company: he finds the place stiff with presences of a decidedly inimical nature, and through his dark encounters the secrets of a strange and desperate struggle are gradually revealed. "The Chapel of Ease" just about has the edge on its companions, by virtue of its compelling narrative and well-realised effects. Heard's message, far from being diluted, is in fact reinforced by the presence of a narrator with whose plight we sympathise, and a particularly creepy set of Nasties.
These, then, are the most Jamesian moments Dromenon has to offer. I do urge you, though, to read all the tales; there seems no real reason why Heard should not enjoy at least some of the fame heaped on friends and contemporaries of his such as Isherwood, Huxley et al. Here's hoping this handsome Tartarus edition goes some way towards boosting his profile.
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It's easy to think that this is a thoroughly useful and reliable reference book, because in some places it is. But not everywhere, and you have to tread carefully. First, though, let me run through what Shadows in the Attic is. It's an annotated bibliographical guide to the supernatural fiction of around two hundred British writers working within the specified period. It covers material in books only, not magazines, so is not a complete bibliography of all published works. There is a special introduction by Ramsey Campbell.
The bulk of the book is an A-Z by author, from W. Harrison Ainsworth to P.C. Wren. Chronologically Ainsworth is also amongst the earliest, along with Walter Scott, James Hogg and Frederick Marryatt. It does not go back to the dawn of the gothic novel, so there are no entries on Horace Walpole, M.G. Lewis or William Beckford, for example.
Wilson states that it is a "personal" selection of authors whose work "best represents" the variety and evolution of British supernatural fiction. It is not, therefore, intended to be complete, but neither is it a "top 200". Personalised selections are perfectly acceptable, though difficult to challenge and limited in academic scope. The other criterion for inclusion is if the author had "their works" first published during the period covered. If they did, then work published after 1950 is also included.
Wilson's definition of "supernatural" is a bit too all-encompassing. He treats anything as supernatural if it is "contrary to or outside the laws or conventions of the natural world". But this also covers fantasy, which was not his intention, and it leaves a vagueness about the criteria which is not helpful. However, if we accept that by and large Wilson is selecting the more obvious, traditional and acceptable writers of supernatural fiction - and to be honest, he does - then what about the extent and accuracy of his coverage of those authors?
Each entry includes a short introduction that gives the basic facts about a writer's life, followed by a chronological listing of that individual's works in book form. Each of these books has a short annotation giving some idea of content. The bibliography is separated into collections (including anthologies), novels and then reference works/biographies. For every entry there is a British Library catalogue reference and (where relevant) an ISBN.
There is not the space in this review to go into the vagaries of every individual entry, and the more I looked the more vagaries I found! Some entries are pleasantly thorough and, on the whole, accurate. That for M.R. James, for example, is good, as one would hope since James's output of supernatural fiction was small. We do have to be wary of the distinction between collections and anthologies, and the blind spot over magazine sources is evident in the entry for Shudders, which says: "Contains the first appearance of James' popular story 'Rats'", though its publication in At Random on March 23, 1929, was earlier. Wilson only cites those later "omnibus" volumes of James's stories if they feature something new, which is reasonable, although under the Michael Cox compiled Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories it says that "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" was originally published in Ghosts & Scholars 6 (1984), when that very issue tells you it first appeared in The Masquerade (June 1933).
Generally, though, Wilson is thorough in his analysis of James and gives most welcome acknowledgement to the work of Rosemary Pardoe and G&S. He is alert to all of the key "James Gang" authors, and I would not quibble with the short but reliable entries on Munby, Malden, Swain, Cowles, Arthur Gray, William Croft Dickinson and others.
Elsewhere, however, the entries are fraught with problems. Take the sections on Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson. Wilson has chosen not to include American editions of books and he also excludes later collections that contain only reprint material. Though there is a logic to this the result is confusing. Under Blackwood, for example, he does not list reprint collections like Strange Stories or Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre but he does include Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural because this marks the first UK book appearance of "The Trod" and "The Doll". The US Arkham House collection The Doll and One Other is not listed in its own right, though it is noted under Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural. However Wilson does not list Blackwood's collection Short Stories of To-Day and Yesterday (1930) even though this was the first book appearance of "The Land of Green Ginger".
In the William Hope Hodgson entry, Wilson goes to the trouble of listing two privately published booklets that Hodgson issued purely for copyright purposes, and which were never commercially available, but does not give the booklets produced by George Locke under his Ferret Fantasy imprint such as The Haunted Pampero. This is where the rule of not including US volumes becomes ridiculous because none of the many excellent American collections of Hodgson's lesser known works are listed. Out of the Storm, compiled by Sam Moskowitz, is mentioned in the introduction, but not his other two volumes, nor any of the booklets issued by Sam Gafford or R. Alain Everts or the excellent bibliographical work by Joseph Bell.
The Blackwood and Hodgson entries are thus incomplete, inconsistent, misleading and with one or two errors of fact. The problems arise because, although Wilson has striven for thoroughness and accuracy, his own criteria cause limitations and confusion.
The end result is disappointing, yet, like so many flawed reference books, any book is better than no book at all. Although Wilson's subject category has been more thoroughly and reliably covered by Everett Bleiler in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (Kent State University, 1983), alas now out of print and difficult to obtain, Shadows in the Attic is still a good starting point. It does cover a lot of ground. Wilson clearly had good intent but was let down either by his sources or by inadequate research. This makes for a flawed book and one that has to be used with caution. It's dangerous in the hands of those not well acquainted with the field of supernatural fiction - who will accept everything as gospel - and works best for those who will know its shortcomings but can therefore use it wisely. I have found myself using this book, because I know enough about the field to know when it's helpful and when it isn't. I'm only sorry that it does contain too many errors and omissions for me to recommend it to anyone, and I hope these can be corrected in a later edition. If you are sufficiently interested in this field, buy the book and then bombard the British Library with lists of all the errors and encourage them to do a new, amended edition. Only that way will a volume of such failed promise eventually reach its potential.
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Strange, amphibious creatures, these four programmes, as they were not simple readings, but fell far short of being dramatisations. They were also, oddly, fictionalisations of M.R. James's own life, with Christopher Lee portraying him as Provost of King's College, Cambridge, "nearly a hundred years ago". The grey-bearded former Dracula could hardly pass as the younger man who wrote and read the stories to his contemporaries. But this twisting of the facts was part and parcel of a wider tendency to muck about with Monty, the man and his work, that I found irritating.
As expected, Lee told the tales well enough, recounting (not actually reading) them in measured tones to an audience of 'students' in a cosy period setting, all port and privilege. Each programme began with eagerly expectant chaps scurrying in from the cold to warm themselves at the fire of "the master". Key scenes were intercut with very brief and often effective images - Sir Matthew Fell's bedroom, the door of Number 13, the shadowy figure of William Ager. There were also props scattered about the room, including the inevitable volumes of antiquarian and demonic lore, and a deck of Tarot cards. Hmm. I know some viewers felt this 'magic lantern show' meant we got what amounted to a radio programme on the television, but I preferred the evocative imagery to the tepid '70s dramatisations, particularly in "A Warning to the Curious", the strongest tale. I liked this new version much better than the leaden dramatisation starring Peter Vaughan.
Visually, I can't fault any of it. Sadly, though, the minimalist approach meant we didn't get to see any actual horrors, such as Mrs Mothersole's spider-babies - otherwise "The Ash-Tree" worked well, despite the fact that, when it came to "the sortes", the Biblical text shown on screen was slightly different to the spoken words [MRJ's error! - Ed]. "Number 13" was yet again confirmed in my mind as a fair story with a brilliant central idea. "The Stalls of Barchester" was the least satisfactory, having been hacked about far more than the Hanging Oak. We lost one of the choir-stall carvings altogether, and of course the word "cathedral" was removed from the title. Why? Perhaps the BBC feared that such an obscure ecclesiastical term would put people off in these secular times.
My biggest quibble, though, was that a lot of the humour of the stories was lost thanks to what I can only describe as adapter Ronald Frame's clumsy assault on the text, which also involved a campaign to replace 'difficult' words. Po-faced and dumbed down - shame on you, sir! I could have done a better job of abridging the tales myself, and so could anyone reading this review. But leaving such irritants aside, I still enjoyed all four stories, as enough of James's genius for plot, characterisation and pace survived Big Ron's blunt axe. All in all, I award a beta-minus to the Beeb - acceptable but could do much better.
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The relationship between Mary Ann Allen and the editor of Ghosts & Scholars has been much debated by more learned critics than your humble reviewer. Suffice to say that the two ladies share a husband, and a curious blend of the conventional with the startling that sums up the overall appeal of this collection. The twelve stories here are all Jamesian in the best sense - no mere pastiches, they combine humour, spirit of place, a little harmless erudition and, most important of all, tightly woven plots with good central ideas. All but one are narrated by Jane Bradshawe, a restorer of church paintings who has an unenviable(?) way of falling into strange company and uncovering more than mere pigment.
A few stories lean too far towards the "Alas! Poor ghost" school for my taste, but most of the spooks are satisfyingly disturbing. They are also sprinkled, not too liberally, with references to earlier tales, Jamesian or otherwise. Comparisons may be odious, but "The Blue Boar of Totenhoe" is a genuinely original variant on the haunted picture theme, while "The Wandlebury Eyecatcher" is an 18th century folly that could well have cropped up in one of the Provost's more terse tales. "Margaret and Catherine" superbly evokes the horror of the Thing that cannot be seen for what it is by its victim, while "Ne Resurgat" (which recalls "Martin's Close" in some respects) does belated justice not merely to one revenant, but to a whole sub-category of maligned horror story stereotypes. "Hold Fast" is a ghostly variant on Eliot's remark that the English Civil War never really ended, while "The Hatchment" is an unusual and rather touching take on the theme of doomed love as the mechanism of a haunting.
The best is left till last, though, in stories that push at the limits set by James. "The Cambridge Beast" departs from the Jane Bradshawe format to describe a bizarre manifestation that haunts King's College Chapel. What's more, it may not be alone. The story, while satisfactory on its own, also acts as a clever prelude to "The Sheelagh-na-gig", which closes the Bradshawe cycle with great finality. The illustration for this tale may startle some readers, but as with all Wendy Wees's drawings, it suits the material very well. In both stories the author shows how the ingredients of Jamesian fiction can be made to carry a somewhat greater weight of significance than is usually attempted by pastichists or emulators, who should recall the startling idea central to "A Warning to the Curious". "The Sheelagh-na-gig" takes the idea of supernatural catastrophe to a much higher level.
All in all, then, this is one for a lower shelf, gentle reader, as you will definitely be taking it down to reread or show off to your envious friends. No, of course they can't borrow it. It only remains to praise the small band, led by editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who brought this finely turned-out volume to us. The design is excellent, the illustrations likewise, and production values high.
[In the UK and Europe, copies of The Angry Dead are available from the G&S editorial address at a price of £21.50 including UK p&p. Add an extra £1.00 for European p&p. Sterling cheques/money orders payable to R.A. Pardoe. Please mention if you would like Mary Ann to sign your copy. Or e-mail me with your name and address for an order form. In the States and elsewhere, contact Richard Fawcett or visit Jessica Amanda Salmonson's web site (where you can also read a review of the book by Jim Rockhill).]
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"From the modern golden age of the 60s, of Gothique and Twylight, through the 70s and Fantasy Tales, the 80s and Ghosts & Scholars, to the 90s and the flowering of small press horror book publishers in the final years of the century, this history reveals the exceptional wealth of innovation and commitment by genre editors over the years." So goes the press release for On the Fringe, and it's right in every detail, although it doesn't mention the central position of David Sutton's own Shadow in all this (fortunately the booklet itself does - it would have been seriously remiss not to!).
In his introduction, Stan Nicholls, one of the original co-editors of Gothique, tries to account for how the scene got started in the '60s; growing out of a combination of the existing British science fiction/fantasy fanzine world and the importing of Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters, plus "that indefinable spirit of the times, and Himalayan head candy". Then, in seven succinct, roughly chronological chapters, David describes the sixties horror movie fanzines, the development of the literature-oriented magazines like Shadow and Fantasy Tales, and organisations such as the British Fantasy Society and the Ghost Story Society, before coming right up to the present day with its burgeoning small press book market (Ash-Tree, Tartarus, etc.). There's an entire chapter devoted to the Haunted Library, and whilst I might bridle slightly at one or two generalisations ("the non-fiction content and bibliographies [in Ghosts & Scholars] have been provided mainly by Richard Dalby and Hugh Lamb"), I'm also very flattered by the extent of the coverage.
Whether you were part of the scene from the start (I wasn't quite, although the very first fanzine I ever read was Gothique 6, bought while I was still at school!), or only found it recently, On the Fringe for Thirty Years is a must if you want to find out exactly how we got here! The booklet is illustrated with some very good front-cover reproductions, including G&S 11 (the first appearance in G&S of Dallas Goffin) and the marvellous Moy Read artwork on Gothique 7. Where is Moy now? And where are some of the other names, I wonder? Yet so many of us are still around, or have gone on to related projects. My one criticism of On the Fringe is that the reader won't learn much about the character and history of the people who produce(d) these magazines. I suppose it wouldn't have been possible in a small forty-page booklet (although the text has been much expanded from an original 1996 article in The Scream Factory). Surely there's a full-length book to be written on the subject, and I hope that one day David Sutton, who has been there all along, will write it. Ah, memories, memories! Now, what's next?
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After Terry Lamsley's two hugely successful previous collections, Under the Crust and Conference With the Dead, this third volume of his stories seems to have been a long time coming. It was worth the wait for readers keen on authors who are total originals but nevertheless continue to be influenced by the Jamesian tradition. Dark Matters contains eleven stories, most of them lengthy, and all but two reprinted, from sources as varied as Ghosts & Scholars and The Mammoth Book of Dracula. Terry, in his introduction, describes them as "nothing more or less than self-contained mysteries that I have attempted to capture in print... They are, in fact, almost as much of a mystery to me as they are to you..." Nigel Kneale once said: "There must have been times when it was hard to be Monty James". I might argue with that, but after reading Dark Matters I do worry that there must be times when it's hard to be Terry Lamsley! There is so much alienation, loss and unhappiness here, especially in such stories as the new "An Evening with Harrod", inspired by his fascination with "[t]ales of social disaster and embarrassment", taken to surrealistically horrific extremes.
Most of the stories, while not necessarily Jamesian in themselves, have Jamesian aspects. A favourite of mine is obviously "The Walls" from G&S 22, with its original and odd twist on the treasure guardian theme. Even better is "The Lost Boy Found" (from Dark Terrors 3), where, despite a possible rationalised ending, the disturbing occupants of a village are Jamesian in the same way as the figures in the crowd in "After Dark in the Playing Fields" ("some, I think, [come from] out of the water"). If anyone is in any doubt that "The Lost Boy Found" is Jamesian, let them consider the fact that nothing happens to the father and his son until the latter attempts to read aloud an inscription on the village's strange memorial statue:
"A lot of the individual letters were hidden behind the railings, and the surface of the stone had flaked away in places, but from what remained, it was obvious to Daniel that the original must have been almost unpronounceable.
"'- jabber-jabber-jabber,' Marc chanted, in exaggerated mockery. 'Try reading it aloud, Dad. It makes your tongue hurt.'"
Even science fantasy turns out to have a Jamesian edge in "Suburban Blight" and the remarkable new "Climbing Down from Heaven" (which may be science fantasy depending on how you see it!):
"...someone else was descending through the gap in the roof. It had gone much darker and it was impossible to see exactly what manner of being had now come into the 'church'. It was dressed in some long, loose garment that flapped around it like huge wings. It seemed to flow down and around the hanging rope in a violent, determined way..."
But the horror in tales like "The Snug", which ends in a supernatural ritualistic massacre, comes into an entirely different and equally effective, though not necessarily more modern, category. Although some of the contents are inevitably better than others, there isn't a story in the entire book that doesn't stay with you long after it's finished, and all will leave the reader puzzled: something I know not everyone enjoys as much as I do.
Terry Lamsley occupies the nightmare borderland of Jamesian fiction (a fact clearly grasped by the Dark Matters dust-jacket artist, Douglas Walters), and it's not a comfortable place to be. But, then, whoever said the James tradition should be comfortable?
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In discussing the undertaking by Jack Parsons of his personal 'Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin', in G&S 26 ("The Black Pilgrimage", pp.52-53), I came to no definite conclusions on where he might have acquired the idea for this risky project. When I heard, shortly afterwards, that a biography of Parsons was in the offing from Feral House, I had great hopes that it might provide the answer.
John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952) was by day a top rocket scientist, but by night he was a practitioner of Thelemic Magick and an associate of Aleister Crowley. After he took his astral Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin in the late forties, he believed he had become the Antichrist. When he died it was in an explosion about which many questions still remain today. Thus there is much for the pseudonymous 'John Carter' to cover in this book, and, unfortunately, although he discusses the Black Pilgrimage in fair detail, he offers no theories on where Parsons got the idea. Carter briefly mentions the Biblical references to Chorazin, the legend that it would be the birthplace of the Antichrist, and the present day ruins, but there is no suggested source given for the Black Pilgrimage. It looks more and more likely that Parsons' inspiration was MRJ's "Count Magnus" (perhaps via L. Ron Hubbard or Sam Russell), especially as Carter notes the influence of fantastic fiction on some other aspects of Parsons' activities ("...[he] may have acquired the moniker [Belarion] from a fantasy novel which featured a character by that name"; and "Williamson's book [Jack Williamson's werewolf novel, Darker Than You Think] evidently influenced Parsons' writing...").
Sex and Rockets is an interesting read, well illustrated with photographs, newspaper cuttings, patent applications and all manner of other related items. One feels the author could have gone into more depth, however, and the lack of notes and references means any reader wanting to research some aspects of Parsons' life more thoroughly has difficulty knowing where to start (the reasonably good bibliography doesn't altogether compensate for this omission). As for Robert Anton Wilson's introduction (his name appears on the - otherwise wonderful! - dustjacket in letters as high as Carter's); this is the usual mix of joyously surreal originality and aggravatingly obvious errors of fact which we expect of him.
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It's a little late - like nearly half a century - to be reviewing this first ever TV adaptation of an M.R. James story, but The Lost Will of Dr Rant (a.k.a. "The Tractate Middoth") has been shown again on US television in recent years, so I think it's worth bringing to the attention of G&S readers now.
"The Tractate Middoth" itself is noteworthy for its wonderful antiquarian background, but not really for its plot, which is very slight. Even though this play in the old Lights Out series is only twenty minutes long, everything from the original is included in some shape or form, and there is even room for a little additional explication. Most of the time, the dramatisation is quite faithful to the story, if you make allowances for the transfer of events geographically to Massachusetts and Vermont; and chronologically to the (then) present day.
In the early 1950s, TV was in its infancy and this obviously shows in the production values: the dreaded 'Hebrew Section' of the library, for instance, seems to have been built in the studio broom closet! Dr Rant is not very good, especially in the library scene, although one featuring him at Boston train station is better. The tendency for some of the cast (particularly Russell Collins as John Eldred) to overact shamelessly is another inevitable problem. But the young Leslie Nielsen as "Bill" (William Garrett) is a likeable and very handsome hero, while Pat Englund makes a suitably spunky Mary Simpson.
Amateurish though it sometimes seems to the modern eye, this is, in its unpretentious, honest and straightforward way, a much better MRJ adaptation than Miller's "Whistle and I'll Come to You". It's at least equal to some of the lesser contributions in the BBC's "Ghost Stories for Christmas" series twenty years later, and well worth seeking out if you get the chance.
[My thanks to Stephen Banes who, despite a very Jamesian problem with the first tape he sent, kindly provided me with a copy of this adaptation.]
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It all began with Cynthia Asquith. In deciding the parameters of what constitutes a 'ghost story' for her famous The Ghost Book (1926), and in drawing contributions from her circle of literary acquaintance (mostly celebrated), she set them as wide as possible, to include a number of strange, fantastic or weird tales that, whatever they might be, were hardly ghost stories. When she made a second (and third) selection after some twenty-six years, she continued sweeping with a wide net, and in the third volume (1955), she included "Ringing the Changes" by Robert Aickman. Not a 'ghost story' within most readers' perception, I daresay, but very reminiscent of the nightmarish, dream-like, nasty side of apparent reality, which characterised the fantasies of Walter de la Mare, who had featured in the two earlier volumes. You might almost say that Aickman succeeded to the mantle of de la Mare (who died in 1956). James Turner (himself a writer of excellent supernatural fiction) continued the Aickman presence in The Fourth Ghost Book (1965), picking up from a further selection begun by Lady Asquith. By this time, Aickman's reputation for tales that haunt the reader (as distinct from being about a haunting) was well established, with the collections We Are For The Dark (1951 - with Elizabeth Jane Howard), Dark Entries (1964), and Powers of Darkness in press.
In his interesting introduction to these Tartarus volumes, David Tibet recognises the strong similarity between Aickman's and de la Mare's uneasy tales, but suggests even stronger links with the work of Thomas Ligotti. David reminds us, as indeed does the title of this collection, that Aickman himself preferred the term "strange" for his stories, though that did not prevent him from including them in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1964) and succeeding selections, of which he edited the first eight (to 1972), also presenting some thoughts on the subject in the various introductions therein. Aickman actually says: "The majority of ghost stories, however, have no actual ghost". Depends on your definition, old son! He continues: "A better title for the genre might be found, but the absence of the ghost seldom dispels the alarm". This is certainly true of his own tales, in which either his cunningly-wrought settings, or what seem to be the author's own prejudices, bring out the worst in us, the readers! Interestingly, he then goes on to link his own and de la Mare's yarns: "It can be almost worse if someone else apprehends the ghost, as in 'Seaton's Aunt'; or if you cannot tell whether it is a ghost or not, as in 'The Trains'." Well, this reviewer can tell, and it isn't a ghost in "The Trains"... But worry not: among the fearsome, disturbing moods of these forty-eight stories, there are ghosts (within the strictest of definitions) aplenty. These range from a typical harbinger of doom ("The Fetch"); grisly skeletal remains with the best Jamesian touches ("Never Visit Venice"); a wonderfully horrid dolls' house ("The Inner Room", with which I can't help thinking the author decided to 'improve upon' M.R. James's version); and the undeniable cadaver of a telephonic ghost ("Your Tiny Hand"). With the interests of this journal in mind, I have to say that while Jamesian influences can be detected in such tales as those above, as well as "The Cicerones", "Unsettled Dust" and "The School Friend", Aickman is essentially his own man and indebted to no one.
He is original (a quality I always prize) and literate - indeed, he is very much a 'writer's writer' (to use Lord Gorell's term about Nugent Barker - and incidentally there are similarities between Barker and Aickman too). It used to be easy to pick up his collections as they were published; even a few of the earlier ones in paperback. Sadly for the late-comers, however, Aickman became 'collectible' as a modern author not specifically within our genre, and this pushed the prices of second-hand copies up to what I consider to be ridiculously high figures; a situation that has pertained for years.
Now, at last - salvation! This handsome new two-volume edition, beautifully presented and printed, puts you in possession of the contents of all eight of his collections, for the price you'd have to pay for a tatty copy of any one of the originals.
Here you have the full range of Aickman's prose and talents. It would be absurd to say that all the stories appeal to me. Even over many years of reading and re-reading, I find some, like the grotesque "Growing Boys" (definitely no ghosts!), "The Trains", "Ringing the Changes" and "The Swords", quite uninteresting. But against that you have such little masterpieces as "The Inner Room", "The Insufficient Answer" and "The View" to exult in; and, for me, that allegorical myth-land of "The Wine-Dark Sea" can never be bettered.
Ramsey Campbell's short "Reminiscence" of Aickman makes him more human than you might deduce from his tales or from what others (Peter Straub, for example) have said about him; and Tartarus Press have now ensured that his entire oeuvre of strange tales can be had for a reasonable sum of money.
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This is an interesting, if regrettably slim (102pp) volume of highly original tales, in a limited print run of 200 copies. The central character, the Connoisseur, made his debut in two stories in the Dark Dreams "Occult Detective Special" of 1990, and these are the first of the nine tales (six of them new) in the present collection. He is the possessor of arcane, specialised knowledge; a fastidious and discerning aesthete, dilettante and Jacobite. His creator, Mark Valentine, editor of Aklo and first editor of All Hallows, has previously offered us the adventures of another character, Ralph Tyler, in 14 Bellchamber Tower (Crimson Altar, 1987). Given Mr Valentine's tastes and talents, In Violet Veils inevitably echoes Machen and the Celtic twilight of the Welsh border country, but the tales also take in Sussex, Worcester and the Peak District. The prose is luxurious and extravagant, evoking Huysmans, Wilde, The Yellow Book and, perhaps, Shiel. One looks instinctively for Beardsley illustrations.
The stories have strong and sometimes fascinating antiquarian backgrounds so it will probably come as a shock to those who wrongly equate 'antiquarian' with 'Jamesian' when I declare that these tales are not Jamesian, though the three best have definite Jamesian scratchings at their edges. Indeed, the Connoisseur is such a lover of beauty and refinement that one wonders how he might fare against your average Jamesian 'thing' (i.e. squat, hairy, bony and slimy)! Such traffic as he has with the darker side (and there is plenty) revels in the texture and sensuous aspects of its diabolière.
The book starts mildly with several hors d'oeuvres to the main banquet, all with slight plots, although there is distinct humour in the explanation of the banshee and watching eyes of "The Paravine Cries", while the dangers of using live models to recreate mythological dioramas are brought home in the title story. But of the rest, three tales stand out as truly excellent. In "The Lost Moon" we have a winning character in clockwork-restorer Thomasina Vaux, and it is no great give-away to compare the astronomical instrument she has in for repair with Mr Dark's calliope. At the end of the story I was musing on whether I'd trust Miss Vaux with the clockwork mechanism of my Bassett-Lowke model railway locomotive, only to discover that the next tale, "Cafe Lucifer", introduces a Charles Barwick-Fowkes and his cubist/art-deco house, 'Lucifer Hall'. I instantly made the connection with the great model manufacturer Wenman Bassett-Lowke and his houses, 'Derngate' (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) and 'New Ways' (Peter Behrens). The story is a paean to the cubist movement but there is sinister danger in meeting the girl with eyes of green fire! Splendid stuff! "The Craft of Arioch" is easily the best of all, though. Mr Woodley's rocking horses are very different to D.H. Lawrence's, and one is left wondering uneasily where his craft is taking him and his clients.
Coarse terrors there are not, but subtle unease there is - and in these three tales an intellectual disquiet that intensifies the more you ponder.
In Violet Veils is nicely presented to complement the rich prose, and is not illustrated. This is a good thing: Mr Valentine conjures up quite enough vivid images in the reader's mind.
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"There are five or six of them, only I'm not sure they're heads; they might be stones someone has balanced on the wall - they're almost the same colour." Thus a schoolboy describes his initial glimpse of a distinctly Jamesian menace in "The Same in Any Language", the first story in this collection. Humour, subtlety, a well-realised sense of place (the Greece of the package tours) and the gradual intrusion of the horrific - all are used to great effect. As a thoroughly modern reworking of classic Jamesian themes it could scarcely be bettered, and nary a Gothic cathedral or ancient manuscript in sight.
Ghosts and Grisly Things contains twenty stories, around half of them supernatural or occupying that twilight zone between the ghostly tale and the psycho-chiller. While "The Same in Any Language" is, for me, the most Jamesian, others run it close. "This Time", which appeared in the Ghosts & Scholars book, is one of the most original treatments of the witchcraft theme, and the lonely, gentle protagonist is one of Campbell's most sympathetic characters. "Out of the Woods", a story whose origins are almost as strange as its content, concerns the malice of not entirely inanimate objects, when a callous publisher finds a country estate is something that can hate. And in the superb "Between the Floors" a cinema manager encounters a Blackpool hotel lift attendant whose attempts to "keep us lively as we go down" produce some comically sinister exchanges.
Jamesian touches abound in other, less Jamesian, stories. "Through the Walls" I took to be a tale of drug-induced paranoia, but a striking final image, one that might almost have been culled from "Stories I Have Tried to Write", made me doubt my assumption. There's humour drawn from the commonplace, even in the very bleak "The Dead Must Die", in which a landlady is made irate by the ways of a self-styled vampire hunter: all that garlic, it's not nice. "Root Cause", despite its grim inner-city setting, follows James's example by taking a well-worn theme - in this case, the survival of pagan blood ritual - and making it work again by way of original thoughts and imagery. The same might be said for "Welcomeland", set in a rust-belt town that failed to become a theme park, where a man refuses to dwell on the terrors of childhood until it's too late to avoid them.
But perhaps the most pervasive influence of James on Campbell is in the latter's mastery of the art of the short story. In the work of both we find the careful accumulation of telling detail, the economical depiction of character and incident, and great care taken over narrative structure. While some of these tales lie wholly within the category of horror and might not be to everyone's taste, taken all in all the collection is - to use a phrase suggested by the author's diverting introduction - a spanking good read. Buy it, gentle reader, and you will find much to disturb, surprise and (of course) entertain you.
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M.R. James's biographer, R.W. Pfaff, referred to Augustus Jessopp (1823-1914) as "a fine specimen of the learned but somewhat eccentric country parson", and the frontispiece photograph in this expensive but beautifully produced little book shows him to have been an almost archetypal example of the species. The Phantom Coach is edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, whose characteristically detailed and interesting (if unreferenced) introduction paints a portrait of an antiquary who was, at different periods, a schoolmaster and a cleric, but also a man with plenty of spare time to devote to scholarly pursuits. He and M.R. James became friends when they collaborated on their remarkable study of the twelfth century Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth (1896), one of the earliest cases of the Jewish 'blood libel', the manuscript of which MRJ discovered in a Suffolk church. They shared the translating and the composition of the introductory chapters, and thirty years later in Eton and King's, MRJ wrote affectionately that: "The resulting friendship with Dr Jessopp and the visits to Scarning were handsome rewards for any weariness entailed by the translation..."
In 1880, Jessopp's "An Antiquary's Ghost Story" was first published, and served as a starting point for a series of supernatural essays cum ghostly tales, which appeared in Frivola; Simon Ryan; and Other Papers (1896) under the overall title of "In Wonderland". I hesitate to describe them as 'ghost stories' for these yarns are not exactly plot-driven. In "An Antiquary's Ghost Story", for instance, the ghost of a man simply appears twice to an antiquary in a country house library. That's it - nothing else happens!
In fact, all the material by Jessopp in The Phantom Coach (four 'tales', and an entertaining preface mainly about medieval ghosts and 'wonders') reads more like non-fiction based on the author's experiences and the folk legends he'd heard. Perhaps it really is little more than this. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to judge on the basis of "An Antiquary's Ghost Story", which is the only tale in any way well known today (having been previously reprinted by Jessica, and - sure enough - also recounted in non-fiction ghost story compilations). It is the least, and certainly the least compelling, item in the book. But by the second (and best) tale, "The Phantom Coach" itself, any reader who enjoys an antiquarian anecdote is likely to find themselves hooked by Jessopp's delightfully winning narrative voice. Inspired by a legend recounted to him by Rider Haggard's father, "The Phantom Coach" may lack cohesion as a whole, but I don't see how anyone could fail to want to know more about the eponymous vehicle which "called and fetched away Jarge Mace. And who was Jarge, and how much of him was fetched?" The remaining two tales are interesting but less significant, and concern dreams and night-time encounters from Classical Antiquity onwards.
In Jessica's introduction, she says: "Monty [James] assuredly read his friend's 'An Antiquary's Ghost Story' in advance of composing his own vastly more famed Ghost Stories of an Antiquary". This may well be true, and I suppose it could even be that the title of MRJ's first collection was inspired by Jessopp's tale, but is there also a case for proposing that MRJ's stories were actually influenced by Jessopp's? Certainly not in the settings which are similar only because both men moved in similar circles, and certainly not in their respective ghosts and plots which are as different as they could possibly be. Yet the strength of Jessopp's personal narrative voice is not unlike MRJ's as manifested in several of his stories, and Jessopp's amusing lines often placed into the mouths of the 'lower classes' have something of a Jamesian ring. This is probably coincidental, as MRJ's comic characters dated from childhood games with his brother, but it's just possible that Jessopp's use of the same 'types' might have encouraged MRJ to incorporate his into his ghost stories.
The resemblance of titles remains the most probable connection, however, and there is a second one of the same sort: an article on "Hill-digging and Magic" which Jessopp published in The Nineteenth Century in January, 1887, and which was followed in April of that year by an extended footnote, entitled "A Warning to the Society for Psychical Research". I wouldn't want to read too much into this, but an essay on hill-digging and ancient mounds, with a footnote headed "A Warning to the...", does seem a little suggestive of something else! I wish Jessica had decided to reprint Jessopp's article as an appendix to The Phantom Coach.
Tastefully put together, with illustrations by Wendy Wees, this small book is a volume that most Jamesian collectors will want to own. Jessopp, in his preface, makes his own views on the supernatural clear: "...if [a man] can't believe because he cannot imagine anything that he cannot handle, what shall we say of him but that he is an intellectual cripple? ...Give me the man who can believe anything..." I'm sure MRJ would have agreed.
[E-mail or write to Richard Fawcett at the address given on the Ghosts & Scholars Home Page for an order form. Or you can buy signed copies from Jessica Amanda Salmonson via her very active web site. As a service to G&S readers, I've arranged with Richard Fawcett to take orders from anyone in the UK or Europe wishing to pay in sterling for this book. Send me £20.00 including surface mail postage, or £22.00 including airmail; cheques payable to "R.A. Pardoe". Your order will then be passed on to Richard, and mailed to you direct from the States.]
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Adrian Dennistoun was first introduced to the world by M.R. James himself, although in a carefully edited, even censored fashion. Nevertheless the perceptive reader of "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" is bound to wonder why this supposedly serious academic should have been so thoroughly oblivious to what was going on around him. Thanks to Bill Read, we now know, and the truth about Dennistoun is revealed at last, including his chosen discipline (paleolithic bakery).
This collection contains nine stories, of which six are previously unpublished. Dennistoun (for those not previously acquainted with him) is a fellow of one of Cambridge's colleges, "Usher", which is not exactly high in the academical pecking order and is situated somewhere on the wrong side of the town gasworks. He has an innate ability to attract to his person any supernatural Thing within ten miles, and an unrivalled talent for not noticing their presence until it is far too late. Somehow, though, Dennistoun manages to avoid preternatural disaster to his own person, if not to those around him. In "The Lufford Photographic Competition" (a kind of prequel to "Casting The Runes"), for instance, he never even notices that the runes have been slipped to him, but escapes the leporine Thing by generously giving his briefcase to someone else who is unwisely oblivious of what they are receiving. This is the Dennistoun who can all unknowing purchase for 50p a country mansion distinguished by being haunted by the largest number of Things ever found together in one place ("1001 Things"), hobnob with 500-year-old ghosts under the illusion that they are actors in a mumming play ("Dennistoun and the Barrel Inheritance") and mistake a Thing crawling about his hotel room at night for the resident canine ("The Secret of No.16"). In short, an original comic creation who will have you chuckling on every page. Read this book: you'll enjoy it and it's a great antidote to melancholia. Nick Maloret's fine artwork complements the stories nicely and has Dennistoun's appearance exactly as I had imagined him, a disconcerting mix of David Niven and L.T.C. Rolt.
I do feel that Bill Read's depiction of the rigors of academical life at Cambridge University and of the sobriety and intelligence of its members is somewhat over-exaggerated for dramatic effect - I don't remember it being quite like that when I was an undergraduate. Oxford, however, (in "Christmas at St Baal's") he seems to have got just about right. At the end of the book there's a handy list of all the Dennistoun stories, published and unpublished: may we hope that some more will see print before too long?
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Copyright © 2000, 2001 Rosemary
Pardoe. Copyright on all reviews retained by the reviewers. Not to be
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Last altered: August 24, 2004.