For years I always considered myself rather a loner, not antisocial or anything but simply, to borrow the title of one of Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” a cat that walked by himself. But then one day it struck me that I belonged to the Baker Street Irregulars, the North American Jules Verne Society, the Wodehouse Society, the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and half a dozen others. I was obviously more clubbable than I had imagined.
What I like about these groups, along with the camaraderie, is their publications. While academic journals tend to be unreadable, this isn’t the case for, say, the Wodehouseans’s lively Plum Lines, the Carrollian Knight Letter, the fanzine Old-Time Detection or the now sadly defunct All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society. Over the years their pages have taught me a lot and done so in an entertaining fashion.
So here’s some advice: If you’re passionate about a subject, don’t restrict yourself to reading about it in books and online. Look for the field’s “trade” or fan publications. Consider, for example, the most recent issues of four terrific critical journals devoted to fantastic and supernatural fiction.
Weird Fiction Review is published by Centipede Press and edited by S.T. Joshi, the world’s leading authority on H.P. Lovecraft. The current issue, No. 8 (Autumn 2017), contains nearly 400 pages of articles, short fiction, artwork and verse. The nonfiction is particularly outstanding. In “The Shasta Publishing Story,” Stefan Dziemianowicz chronicles the small press that brought out early hardcover editions of Robert A. Heinlein, Alfred Bester (“The Demolished Man,” winner of the first Hugo Award) and John W. Campbell Jr., including a collection named for that writer-editor’s suspenseful Antarctic horror story, “Who Goes There?,” the basis of at least three films, starting with Howard Hawks’s 1951 classic, “The Thing From Another World.”
Elsewhere in the issue, “Weird Erotica in the Age of Essex,” by Adam Groves, surveys science fictional porn during the 1960s and 70s. In these years, Essex House and similar publishers issued such notorious works as Samuel R. Delany’s “The Tides of Lust” and Charles Platt’s “The Gas.” In complementary articles Jason V. Brock discusses the music in horror films and Michael L. Shuman considers how such films have influenced pop music. Certainly fans of Dungeons & Dragons won’t want to miss Chad Hensley’s “Visceral Visual Wizardry,” an illustrated account of the D&D artwork of Erol Otus.
Still, my two favorite pieces are Danel Olson’s long interview with Patrick McGrath, one of the masters of the New Gothic, and “The Ghosts of James M. Barrie,” by John C. Tibbetts. The latter focuses on the supernatural fiction and theater of a writer too often remembered only for “Peter Pan.” As I’ve written myself about Barrie’s plays and his haunting short novel, “Farewell, Miss Julie Logan,” I can say with some authority that Tibbetts has produced the best analysis this work has ever received.
Wormwood, edited by Mark Valentine and published by Tartarus Press, is devoted to “Literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.” The most recent issue, Number 29, (Autumn, 2017), includes an article by Colin Insole about Hope Mirrlees’s extraordinary 1928 fantasy, “Lud-in-the-Mist,” and three essays of rediscovery: Nick Wagstaff on the Marxist writer Edward Upward, best known for his surreal short story, “The Railway Accident”; John Howard on the science fiction author (and full-time bus driver) Philip E. High; and the late, much-missed Richard Dalby on Ulric Daubeny, author of a single outstanding book of ghost stories, “The Elemental.”
This issue of Wormwood also features the second half of Nina Antonia’s enthralling “Incurable: Lionel Johnson, the Disconsolate Decadent” (its first half appeared last spring). Like his friend and fellow poet Ernest Dowson (“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”), Johnson died young, a major fatality of what Yeats called the Tragic Generation of the 1890s. For a while the absinthe-drinking poet lived in a haunted flat where unseen visitants left strange claw-like footprints.
If I were to list the greatest supernatural short stories of all time, I would start with Arthur Machen’s “The White People,” about a young girl’s unknowing initiation into an ancient, otherworldly cult. A poet-in-prose, Machen also wrote the hallucinatory novel “The Hill of Dreams,” and the intricately nested eerie stories gathered in “The Three Impostors.” Faunus: The Journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen, appears twice a year and the latest issue, Number 36 (Fall, 2017), offers reflections by Mark Goodall on adapting Machen stories for the film “Holy Terrors” ; articles about the Welsh fantasist from two of his contemporaries, the mystical modernist A.R. Orage and decadent stylist extraordinaire M.P. Shiel; a chatty letter from a noted collector of Machenalia and much else.
Last, but hardly least, is the Green Book “Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature,” published by Swan River Press. Issue 10 is dated Samhain 2017 — Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the first day of winter — and entirely devoted to Lord Dunsany and that prodigious fantasy writer’s place in Irish literature. Editor Brian J. Showers has gathered appreciations and critiques by Elizabeth Bowen, W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Faolain and many others, as well as a delightful reminiscence of visits to Dunsany Castle by Kathleen Tynan. This issue is a must-have for any admirer of “The King of Elfland’s Daughter.”
As a postscript, let me add one sui generis item: Zagava Books’ facsimile edition of the first magazine entirely devoted to weird fiction and poetry. Published in 1919, Der Orchideengarten, The Orchid Garden, features a garishly macabre cover, in red and greenish yellow, depicting a gigantic sickly blossom that has broken through a hothouse window. On one of its tendrils sits a voluptuous nude, while two froglike creatures peer from a seed sac. For those whose German is rusty or nonexistent, Zagava’s facsimile interleaves English translations of the original text.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.