Haunted by Books by Mark Valentine (2015, Tartarus Press)
Haunted by Books is an excellent collection of essays by weird literature expert Mark Valentine. I can’t recommend this collection enough if you have an interest in obscure horror, mystery, or just plain weird literature. These are “orphan”essays Valentine has written over the past few years which he’s assembled in one collection for the first time. Most of the writers are from the first half of the last century and are obscure, but familiar enough if you are a fan of literature from this time period. I’ve increased my Amazon Wish List dramatically after reading these essays.
The best way to describe the collection is from the introduction:
“How best to term these books—‘mystical’, ‘esoteric’, ‘spiritual’, ‘cosmic’ or ‘occult’? The authors I will discuss wrote fiction primarily to express, or to explore, their own visions and ideals. They may also, of course, have had other motives: some had social or humanitarian views to convey; others wanted to evoke a sense of place; they probably all had a fierce need to write; and most also needed money (though this was rarely the most important factor). Nevertheless, their main reason for writing was to convey truths or possibilities about matters wider than the material world: what Arthur Machen called ‘the Real’, as distinct from the ‘actual’. We are in the realms of Arcadia, Atlantis, Avalon, Shangri La, the Astral Plane, the worlds of Faery and the worlds of Dream.“
Valentine writes about the “magnetic fingers” of book collectors who just seem to know where the book is hiding in an obscure shop as they pass it by. It’s hard to tell people about how difficult it was to find these little gems in the Dark Days before the coming of the Internet when the Singularity took place. I spent thirty years trying to find all the books on the KEW list, some of which I discovered he deliberately put on it because they were nearly impossible to find. Curse you, Karl Edward Wagner and your black book collection! But I did them! Few joys can equal the thrill I experienced upon finding the Quatermass books in their original Penguin editions at a Main Line used bookstore a few years ago. I walked up to the counter with my hands shaking.
What makes this book a real treat are the authors he profiles in it. Many of them are very obscure and I’d never heard of most before. Baron Corvo is one of the most eccentric. I had some knowledge of this idiosyncratic writer and artist over the years, but never understood much about him. A young man from a small family of piano makers, he converted to Roman Catholicism at an early age, but spent a most of his life chasing one patron of the arts after another. He painted many church banners in England before turning to writing. His one book still popular is Hadrian the Seventh, which is about an obscure English writer who becomes pope. Wish fulfilment? Gee, what do you think? This collection inspired me to buy Quest for Corvo by A J Symons, which is a bizarre look into the life of an English eccentric who lived life on his own terms, even if he paid for his refusal to play well with others.
I want to point out that Mr. Valentine really is a genuine fan of the material he writes about. You can feel the enthusiasm for his subjects bleed through the text.
Its hard to say which of these essays are my favorite. For instance there’s one on the life of Charles Welsh Mason, an imperial servant who went native in China and felt he could set himself up as the new Chinese Emperor by sheer force of will:
“So, who was [he]? Trying to answer that question has led me along strange paths indeed, to an author who wrote six books under at least three names, and had a career quite as picturesque as Cumberland suggests. He wrote one book that is a classic of high bombast and bravado, yet he seems to have died in penury and neglect, apparently converted to piety.“
There’s another essay about Valentine’s trip to the last chapel of an obscure religious sect. Here is his inquiry into what they believed and what happened to them:
“One day when I was young I stood among the ruins of their last chapel. I was in my early twenties and already had a taste for old things and forlorn things. A brief passage in an old directory had sent me to find out what was there. And what was there was above all sadness. Bewildered, I did not stay long.“
Finally there is the story of a boxed historical novel left on a publisher’s doorstep:
“In April 1903, the publisher John Lane received a parcel through the post at his London offices in Vigo Street, under the sign of The Bodley Head. It contained the manuscript of a novel. There was nothing uncommon about that, of course: except that the manuscript had no sign of the author, and no title, and there was no accompanying letter. Nor was there any indication where it had come from. It arrived in a red box, and that was just about all that could be known about it.“
As for the MS in a Red Box, I looked it up on Amazon. The book, reprinted in the 1960’s, fetches absurdly high prices when a copy becomes available. Thank you, but I’ll wait for the electronic book edition.
In closing, I can’ recommend this collection of essays enough. If you’ve ever found an old book at a garage sale, hunted down an obscure volume from a list, or just found a book sitting on a shelf that perplexed you, this is a collection you should read. I purchased an electronic edition and read it through in less than twenty-four hours. If it was possible to give this collection of essays more than five stars, I would do so without hesitation.
To purchase from Amazon, click on the link below: