Sunday, 4 May 2014

Books that Stimulate the Imagination

In the late 70's I developed a fondness for paperback books published by Pan under the Picador imprint. In a slightly larger format than typical Pan books, they had shiny attractively illustrated covers and distinctive white spines. Often shelved separately in rotating book stands they were perfect for browsing and it was on such a stand that I bought on impulse John Cowper Powys's massive 'A Glastonbury Romance', the first book in what became a rather large Powys collection.

Picador had a knack of publishing out of print and sometimes relatively obscure works, with an emphasis on fantasy and the imagination.

However, it was another Picador book that also demanded to be bought - this was 'The Road to Xanadu' by John Livingston Lowes. Subtitled 'A Study in the Ways of the Imagination', this book explores in some 400 pages of text and
an additional 200 pages of footnotes, the literary influences that led Samuel Taylor Coleridge to produce two of the world's greatest imaginative poems - 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan'.

To my shame this book sat on the shelves for some 36 years, but now finally it has moved into the class of 'books now read'. And it was certainly worth the wait. Lowes' book asserts that the raw material for these poems was the confused jumble of images, phrases and fragments residing in the 'deep well' of Coleridge's memory. And Lowes piles reference upon reference in teasing out the source of this material. That may sound like pedantry in volumes but the hypnotic style of the book draws you into the quest. However, many of us have such a deep store of half-remembered fragments; Coleridge's supreme genius was in distilling them into so perfect a form that the poetic imagery thus created is still breathtaking.

And what were the books that inspired Coleridge, who had never sailed beyond the shores of England when in 1797 he was writing of a mariner crossing the equator to Antarctic ice before becoming becalmed in equatorial seas? Lowes provides bibliographic details of, to take one example, the narratives of voyagers compiled by the English clergyman Samuel Purchas into weighty volumes published in the 17th century. It was while reading Purchas that Coleridge fell asleep, the last sentence he had read being "In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace". Famously on waking from his dreams Coleridge began furiously writing, beginning "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree........", and so on, before the whole dream memory was shattered by a knock at the door and a visitor from Porlock. Only 54 lines had been written before the most unfortuate interruption in literature.

Lowes shows that almost all the images and episodes in both 'Kubla Khan' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' can be found in the books Coleridge owned or borrowed (many from Bristol Library) or can be found in Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, she and her brother being his constant companions in Somerset during this creative period. The books include all the standard travel books of the time, such as William Bartram's 'Travels through North and South Carolina', Cook's Voyages and of course 'Purchas his Pilgrimage'. Not to mention Dante, 'The Arabian Nights' and Milton.

The book is a labour of love and one of the most detailed studies of particular poems ever made. It delves at times into the psychology of memory. Lowes also has little time for those who write off 'Kubla Khan' as the product of an opium induced 'trip'. Yes, Coleridge did use opium but in a controlled way, often for pain relief, but these two poems are testaments to the amazing capacity of the human mind to distill beauty out of everyday experiences (such as seeing the old moon cradled by the new) and order out of the chaotic jumble lying deep in the well of memory.

'The Road to Xanadu' was published in 1927. Some 80 years later, Kevin J Hayes acknowledged this work as one of the inspirations for his own book 'The Road to Monticello'. This is a study of what Thomas Jefferson read and how these books shaped his life. Sub-titled 'The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson', it is a fascinating study of Jefferson's reading life, how he acquired his books and, of course how he organised his several libraries (the chief one of which formed the core collection of the Library of Congress and to which we paid homage when in Washington last year).

The use to which Jefferson put his books was, of course, totally different to that of Coleridge. In Jefferson's case the writings of thinkers such as Locke and Paine informed his political views, culminating in the Declaration of Independence. Histories, natural history and travel books informed his own description of Virginia and the classics broadened his mind into one of the most original of his time.

Two very different writers, but in each case the rich soil of the mind cultivated and nourished by reading the great works of others produced a rare and imperishable harvest.

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Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Ghost Stories of E F Benson

The dinner table has been cleared, the servants dismissed for the night and the remnants of the party assembled for a few days shooting (or fishing) gather round the dying embers of the fire for a last cigar and perhaps one more whisky. The wind will almost certainly be rattling the shutters and the trees tapping on the window. Inevitably, the conversation turns to ghost stories and again inevitably, at least one of the party will have a story to tell. The ladies having long retired to bed, no detail, however horrific, need be omitted - standard preamble to many a fictional ghost story and a setting instantly familiar to many of the protagonists in the ghost stories of E F Benson and, of course, to their author.

In Benson’s lifetime four volumes of his ghost stories were published, the earliest 'The Room in the Tower' in 1912, the last 'More Spook Stories' in 1934. Benson’s stories followed a particularly brilliant era for the traditional English ghost story, an era that may be said to commence with Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ in 1898 and which encompassed some of the best writing in this tradition notably, M R James’ 'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' 1904), Algernon Blackwood’s 'The Empty House' (1906), and Oliver Onions’ 'Widdershins' (1911).

It is perhaps in comparison with his great contemporaries that Benson’s reputation as a writer of ghost stories may fall below the highest standards. Thus, whilst M R James is the undisputed master of the antiquarian ghost story, Algernon Blackwood of the atmospheric ghost story and Walter de la Mare of the psychological ghost story, E F Benson’s stories do not appropriate for their author any particular sub-category of the genre. However his stories have continued to be plundered by anthologists for the last seventy years or so although it took until 1992 for his collected ghost stories to appear in a single volume.

Famously, E F Benson, as a member of the Chitchat Society at Cambridge, was one of the small group who heard M R James make his first ghost story reading in October 1893, when MRJ read two stories, including the much reprinted ‘Lost Hearts’. M R James would go on to produce four collections of ghost stories in his lifetime, as would Benson. They would remain friends for the rest of their lives.

Uniquely amongst his four volumes of ghost stories, 'The Room in the Tower' contains a short preface. Here the author summarises his reasons for writing them:

"These stories have been written in the hopes of giving some pleasant qualms to their reader, so that, if by chance, anyone may be occupying in their perusal a leisure half-hour before he goes to bed when the night and the house are still, he may perhaps cast an occasional glance into the corners and dark places of the room where he sits, to make sure that nothing unusual lurks in the shadow. For this is the avowed object of ghost-stories and such tales as deal with the dim unseen forces which occasionally and perturbingly make themselves manifest. The author therefore fervently wishes his readers a few uncomfortable moments."

This passage is extremely useful in understanding Benson’s intent and explains much about the stories themselves. Each story is relatively short, between 7 and 18 pages long in the collected edition, obviously intended for reading in a single sitting. Such a length precludes the detailed character development found, for example, in Henry James and Walter de la Mare or the extended landscape descriptions found in writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. However, the strictures Benson placed on himself ensure a concise and rounded story with little distraction from the main effect. It may also be noted that many of the stories were first published in popular magazines such as Pearsons and Hutchinsons, the stories sometimes being illustrated, notably by Edmund Blampeid. Unfortunately, when the stories appeared in book form said illustrations were not included.

Clearly for a magazine appearance short stories had to be written to the length allowed by the editor. This is not to say that Benson was incapable of writing on ghosts and the supernatural in longer works and several of his novels, for example 'The Luck of the Vails' and 'David Blaize', have occult or supernatural content. However, these are outside the scope of this article, except for the light this aspect of Benson’s novel writing throws on his short ghost stories. Clearly, both were evidence of an interest in occult and supernatural forces that was shared by many of his contemporaries, notably Arthur Conan Doyle, another prolific author of supernatural stories. Benson was clearly aware of the fraudulent practices of some supposed clairvoyants, as revealed in stories such as ‘Mr Tilly’s Séance’ and ‘The Psychical Mallards’. In the former, Mr Tilly is killed in an accident while on his way to a séance. In his new spirit form he decides to attend the séance, where he reveals himself to the medium, discovering that she is a fraud. However, he astonishes the group by speaking through her. So amazing is the experience that the Psychical Research Society send independent investigators to check the facts and they conclude that the whole thing was fake, which as the narrator concludes “was a pity, since, for once, the phenomena were absolutely genuine”. This is perhaps the most humorous of the stories and is written with a light touch, with none of the atmosphere of impending catastrophe usually prevalent in the stories.

Famously, E F Benson reported seeing the ghost of a man in the garden of his home at Lamb House, Rye, the Vicar of Rye also being present on this occasion and corroborating the sighting. For a house formerly occupied by Henry James, Lamb House was clearly maintaining a ghostly tradition. In her short novel 'The Haunting of Lamb House' Joan Aiken presents three separate hauntings involving first Toby Lamb, the original owner, then Henry James and finally E F Benson.

It is perhaps something of an irony that ghost stories and reports of ‘real’ encounters with ghosts retained their popularity in an age when science was busily unlocking the secrets of life, the record of the rocks and the structure of matter itself. Perhaps they reflected a belief that there were questions of human experience and perception to which science alone could not provide the answers; or perhaps imaginary horrors provided some measure of escape from the all too real horrors of mechanized twentieth century warfare.

Benson, following his exposure to the readings of M R James and his own experience at Lamb House, had clearly thought about how best to write ghost stories. In his autobiography 'Final Edition' he noted that “by a selection of disturbing details it is not very difficult to induce in the reader an uneasy frame of mind which, carefully worked up, paves the way for terror”. He further suggested “that the narrator must succeed in frightening himself before he can hope to frighten his readers.” Clearly we should not be seeking comfortable, benign, ghosts in his stories, but rather those of a malevolent and threatening kind, very much in the M R James tradition.

I first encountered E F Benson at the age of eleven when I found two of his stories in the excellent Hutchinson anthology 'Fifty Years of Ghost Stories'. One of these, ‘Pirates’ made a deep and lasting impression. It is one of his finest tales and was included in 'More Spook Stories'.

In ‘Pirates’ Peter Graham, a successful middle-aged business man, returns on business to the Cornwall of his childhood and is haunted by memories of the idyllic time he spent there with his family, now all deceased. Finding his former home available, albeit sadly run down, he obtains the keys, and visits it, all the time encountering signs of his past life there; in particular he remembers the game of Pirates that they played in the garden. He buys the house, has it renovated and finally comes to take occupation. Waking from a dream, he hears his sister calling for him to join them in the garden and his mother’s voice - “They’re all out in the garden, and they’ve been calling you ….” Peter runs out to join them, knowing they will be playing the favourite game of Pirates.

"He scudded past the golden maple and the bay tree, and there they all were in the summer-house which was home. And he took a flying leap up the steps and was among them.

It was there that Calloway found him next morning. He must indeed have run up the winding path like a boy, for the new-laid gravel was spurned at long intervals by the toe-prints of his shoes."

His weak heart had finally failed. ‘Pirates’ is a magnificent story and unlike any other ghost story Benson wrote. It has been called his most autobiographical. Peter Graham is, perhaps, only a thinly disguised version of the author, who, in this story, may be returning to memories of his childhood in Cornwall when his father was Bishop of Truro. The story is full of the nostalgia for childhood and well-loved places of times gone by and Peter Graham is perhaps unique among Benson’s haunted heroes in finding in death a welcome release, rather than a terrifying nightmare.

Moving forward a couple of years I encountered another anthology, Faber and Faber’s 'Best Ghost Stories', selected by Ann Ridler, including Benson’s ‘The Face’. In my opinion this story, included in 'Spook Stories', is Benson’s most terrifying and ranks with the best of M R James. Hester Ward has a recurring nightmare, in which she is walking along a cliff which slopes steeply down to the sea. She comes to the tower of a ruined church, standing in a graveyard. She then sees a hideously distorted face, which, leering at her, says “I shall soon come for you now”. The nightmare has progressed since her childhood and the cliffs been eroded closer to the church tower. In her childhood she recalls the face saying “I shall come for you when you are older”. Sent away to the seaside to restore her nerves, she takes a walk along the cliffs one day and encounters the landscape of her nightmare. She rushes home, telegraphs for her husband to come and awaits his arrival in her hotel room. When the page-boy informs her that a man is waiting for her at the hotel door she rushes downstairs to meet her husband. However, when the visitor turns his face towards her “the nightmare was on her; she could neither run nor scream, and supporting her dragging steps, he went forth with her into the night”. When her husband arrives shortly after a search is made but Hester is never found.

There are, of course, further elements to this story, which make it a true classic of the genre. However, it is not typical of its author. Rarely does a female take centre stage in Benson’s ghost stories and unusually there is no reason for the haunting of Hester. She apparently has done nothing to deserve her ghastly fate. In my opinion, however, the apparent randomness of the choice of victim is a strength of the story. This could, perhaps, happen to anyone.

Both ‘Pirates’ and ‘The Face’ have been widely praised by critics. Indeed in his wonderful essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H P Lovecraft describes ‘The Face’ as “lethally potent in its relentless aura of doom”. Other stories singled out by Lovecraft are ‘The Man Who Went Too Far’ which “breathes whisperingly of a house at the edge of a dark wood, and of Pan’s hoof marks on the breast of a dead man,” ‘Negotium Perambulans’, “whose unfolding reveals an abnormal monster from an ancient ecclesiastical panel which performs an act of miraculous vengeance in a lonely village on the Cornish coast” and ‘The Horror Horn’, “through which lopes a terrible half-human survival dwelling on unvisited Alpine peaks”.

We may compare the blameless Hester in ‘The Face’ with the generally thoroughly unpleasant males who bring their nemesis on themselves. Thus in ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’ Ralph Hatchard, a lawyer, sees an opportunity to force the purchase of a house he desires when he recognises its owner, Thomas Wraxton, as a man he defended in court, but was found guilty of embezzlement. Threatened with exposure, Wraxton sells his house to Hatchard and promptly dies of a heart attack. Inevitably, after Hatchard moves into his new house his problems begin. He is haunted by the footsteps of a limping man following him (Wraxton had a limp) and eventually in a terrifying climax he meets his fate, as his brother desperately tries to open his bedroom door, hearing screams from inside. Eventually the door is forced:

"His brother was in bed, his legs drawn up close under him, and his hands resting on his knees, seemed to be attempting to beat off some terrible intruder. His body was pressed against the wall at the head of the bed, and the face was a mask of agonized horror and fruitless entreaty. But the eyes were already glazed in death, and before Francis could reach the bed the body had toppled over and lay inert and lifeless. Even as he looked, he heard a limping step go down the passage outside".

The eponymous hero of ‘James Lamp’ is another man who invites his own destruction, in this case by murdering his wife. She returns to claim him and his body is found with his wife’s hands tightly locked round his throat. She had been dead for several days, he only a few hours.

Both M R James and his great predecessor J Sheridan Le Fanu held the view that for a ghost story to be most effective there should be a certain distance between the present and the period in which the story is set: not a return to the gothic romances of crumbling abbeys, wicked uncles and fainting heroines, but sufficiently far back to avoid intrusions of modernity that may jar with the overall atmosphere, perhaps a return to the age of your grandparents when things may well have been sufficiently different that the suspension of disbelief on which the ghost story so critically depends may be achieved. Indeed commentators on the form wondered whether the ghost story could survive the age of electricity and cars, let alone that of the internet and cheap air travel. These questions have been triumphally answered in the affirmative by a new generation of writers, most notably the Liverpool writer Ramsey Campbell, who find in unvisited parts of the city, such as tunnels and underpasses, the supernatural horrors that were once the province of those much feared attics, cellars and red rooms that feature in so many Victorian and early twentieth century ghost stories.

Unlike many other authors of ghost stories in his time, Benson almost without exception set his stories in the present and was not averse to incorporating elements of modernity. Thus in ‘The Dust-Cloud’ we encounter a ghostly motor car doomed to re-enact the grisly accident its driver caused. In ‘The Confession of Charles Linkworth’ the ghost of a hanged man makes over the telephone to a priest the confession he could not bring himself to make before his execution. In the ‘The Bus Conductor’, a guest in a London town house sees a horse-drawn hearse in the street outside his bedroom window; the driver looks up and beckons to him with the words “Just room for one inside, sir”. No explanation for this appearance is offered the next morning and the guest attributes the episode to a dream. Some time later he is just about to board a London bus, when the conductor, exactly the figure in his vision, calls to him with the same words. Horrified he does not board the bus, which is then subject to a terrible collision with another vehicle. This episode was one of the stories incorporated in the excellent Pinewood Studios film ‘Dead of Night’ (1945), still one of the most frightening films made. For one more example of the incorporation of recent inventions into his stories consider ‘And the Dead Spake’, in which a brilliant surgeon, a latter day Victor Frankenstein, manages to reconstruct speech by inserting a needle into brain tissue and amplifying the sound from the traces etched into the brain by strong emotions, using the equivalent of a gramophone needle. This story anticipates some of the later science fiction where futuristic technology is employed. One of Benson’s strengths as a writer of ghost stories is his ability to use a range of methods by which the dead may communicate with the living, not just the tired medium induced table tapping so prevalent in stories of his time.

In her foreword to the 'Collected Ghost Stories' Joan Aiken makes the point that Benson’s almost exclusively male protagonists tend to come in pairs. Thus we have a first person narrator (who we may take to be the author himself) and a congenial male friend. The two are often spending summer holidays together, with no fixed plan but that of getting away for a while. Settings vary but they are predominantly in England, often on the coast, perhaps Norfolk, Sussex or Cornwall. The conversations between the two are often on the nature of psychical phenonema and how sensitive people can tune in to the impressions left by strong emotions and tragic events in the past. This discussion serves as prelude to the events to follow, which act as exemplars to the theory. It is perhaps in his attempts to ‘explain’ ghosts in these terms that Benson is at his weakest as a ghost story writer. The narrator’s companion is often a professional, such as a surgeon, psychologist or archaeologist, who can interpret the events as they unfold, or as in ‘The Temple’ walk straight into danger. In this story, the narrator and his friend, an archaeologist, contrive to rent a cottage in the middle of a Cornish ‘druidical’ stone circle. The altar stone is actually set amongst the flags of the kitchen floor and it is only the heroic efforts of the narrator against the forces of pagan evil that manage to drag his friend off the altar upon which, with a flint knife, he is attempting to cut his own throat.

Apart from the blameless Hester in ‘The Face’, there are very few women who have central roles in the stories, and where they do they are almost invariably cast in an evil light. ‘Mrs Amworth’ is a typical vampire story and it is not long after she moves into Maxley, West Sussex that strange events begin to happen. Fortunately, the narrator’s friend and neighbour, Francis Urcombe has had relevant experience and, following Mrs Amworth’s death in a motor accident, is able to drive the obligatory sharp implement through her heart, having opened her coffin in the time-honoured manner, thus forestalling an outbreak of anaemia in the village. Another example is the truly terrifying Mrs Acres in ‘The Outcast’, who causes a “sickening of the soul” in those she meets. After burial at sea, following her untimely death, she is washed up on the shore near her village and then, following burial, cannot even be contained in her grave. Malevolent women are also central to ‘The Wishing-Well’, in which a curse is turned back on its originator, and ‘The Bath-Chair’ where a frustrated spinster, in some form of psychic union with her dead father brings about the destruction of her brother who has treated them both so badly. A rare exception is Madge in ‘How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery’, who by her innate sympathy exorcises the ghosts of two murdered children who haunt the Long Gallery after dark and cause death to any who linger there too long and see them. Madge inadvertently falls asleep in the Gallery, but when the children appear her initial terror is replaced by maternal feelings towards the lost children and it is this act of kindness that saves her.

E F Benson’s ghost stories could be subject to the criticism that they are too rounded and predictable. Certainly in many of the stories it is clear from the outset what retribution will be forthcoming and to whom. But Benson is such a master of style and writes with such precision that even with a predictable outcome, the stories are eminently readable and enjoyable. There may be little of the ambiguity of other writers such as Walter de la Mare and, more recently, Robert Aickman, but there are a number of the stories that, even on successive re-reading, still carry that shock factor which all ghost stories require. In the stories will also be found some marvellous descriptions of the English countryside that their author knew so well – its woodlands, coasts and winding lanes and those hidden architectural gems nestling in the shadow of low hills protecting them from the cold winds. The houses are lovingly described in detail as prelude to the events to follow. But Benson is also at home in the suburban setting, where typically the house of interest is at the end of cul-de-sac, so its fortunate inhabitants are not at the mercy of passing traffic, tranquillity only disturbed by those unwelcome visitants who inevitably have a purpose shaped by some past event and seek to bring retribution to the inhabitant.

‘Roderick’s Story’ is unashamedly set at Lamb House in Benson’s fictional Tilling:

"It’s right at the top of the hill, square and Georgian and red-bricked. A panelled hall, dining-room and panelled sitting-room downstairs, and more panelled rooms upstairs. And there’s a garden with a lawn, and a high brick wall round it, and there is a big garden-room, full of books, with a bow window looking down the cobbled street."

As if to make the point more obvious Roderick’s host at Tilling is engaged in writing spook stories – “all about the borderland, which I love as much as you do”.

"And when you get really close to the borderland, you see how enchanting it is, and how vastly more enchanting the other side must be. I got right on to the borderland once, here in this house …. and I never saw so happy and kindly a place."

Roderick takes some of his host’s stories to read:

"The stories were designed to be of an uncomfortable type: one concerned a vampire, one an elemental, the third the reincarnation of a certain execrable personage, and as we sat in the garden-room after tea, he with these pages on his knees, I had the pleasure of seeing him give hasty glances round, as he read, as if to assure himself that there was nothing unusual in the dimmer corners of the room…….I liked that; he was doing as I intended that a reader should."

This passage, in which the author is at his most self-referential, is perhaps a fitting place to leave the spook stories, with, of course, a last glance over the shoulder.

In addition to the four volumes published in Benson’s lifetime, a collection of previously uncollected ghost stories was published as The Flint Knife in 1988, edited by Jack Adrian, and over the period 1988 to 2005 the Ash-Tree Press published all the stories in five volumes, again edited by Adrian.

In his introduction to The Supernatural Omnibus, Montague Summers quotes Madame du Deffand, who when asked if she believed in ghosts, replied “No, but I am afraid of them” - a perfect frame of mind, I would suggest, in which to approach E F Benson’s ghost stories.

(This article first appeared in 'Dodo', the journal of the E F Benson Society.)

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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Best Ghost Story Collections

Winter is the season of ghosts, as doors rattle and creak in the wind and bare limbs of trees tap at the window pane. It is a time to huddle round the fire with a good book and what better reading could there be than a ghost story? It was a tradition when I was young to choose a volume of ghost stories for a Christmas present and that tradition to some extent lingers with me still, made easier nowadays by the collections published by the excellent supernatural small presses such as Ash-Tree Press, Tartarus Press and Swan River Press, not to mention the copious volumes reprinted by Wordsworth Editions in their 'Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural' series.

However, for all the ghost stories written, there are a surprisingly small number of books of ghost stories that can be considered truly great, and here I mean books by a single author, not anthologies with multiple authors (which I will cover at a future time).

Over the years, some of these books have found their place in the High Barn Library and I have chosen just nine, with one exception spanning the 60 or so years between 1872 and 1930, during which period the literary and psychological ghost story forms reached their zenith.

'In a Glass Darkly', J Sheridan Le Fanu, Richard Bentley (1872)

In this outstanding volume, Le Fanu probes the boundary between the supernatural and the psychological, particularly in 'Green Tea', one of the most anthologised of ghost stories, in which the unlucky Revd. Jennings is haunted by a green monkey. Other oustanding stories are 'The Familiar', 'Carmilla', with its lovely but deadly vampire, and 'Mr Justice Harbottle', the hanging judge who receives his death sentence from a terrifying supernatural court. Le Fanu wrote many other ghost stories, but it is in this volume that his powers are fully realised.

'Hauntings: Fantastic Stories", Vernon Lee, Heinemann (1890)

The lyrical prose and beautiful topographical descriptions in these four stories add considerably to the supernatural content. The author is equally at home in the Venice of 'A Wicked Voice' as in the Kentish countryside of 'Oke of Okehurst'. Montague Summers justly praised her genius in his excellent introduction to 'The Supernatural Omnibus', including two of these stories in that volume.

'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary', M R James, Edward Arnold (1904)

There is a problem here about which of the four collections of ghost stories written by M R James to include. My heart is perhaps with the second collection 'More Ghost Stories' (1911) containing 'Casting the Runes' and 'The Tractate Middoth', the first volume of James I encountered, aged about 10. However, with the head I have to select the first he published, which includes the incomparable 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad', not to mention 'Count Magnus', 'Lost Hearts' and 'The Ash-Tree'.

This was the only of his first editions to be illustrated and the drawings of James McBryde (who died before its publication) add considerably to the book. In these stories we are shown the dangers inherent in raising the spirits of the dead and that too much intellectual curiosity can be a decidely dangerous thing.

'John Silence, Physician Extraordinary', Algernon Blackwood, Eveleigh Nash (1908)

I do not normally like stories involving supernatural sleuths, but Dr. John Silence is different and in the best of the five stories in this volume is an inconsequential figure. These are predominantly, as in much of Blackwood's ghost (or, more correctly weird) stories, studies of the influence of place on susceptible minds. From the sleepy northern French town of 'Ancient Sorceries' with its supernatural cats to the mysterious brotherhood in the sleepy southern German town of 'Secret Worship' and on to the Scandinavian islands of 'The Camp of the Dog', we follow Blackwood's susceptible travellers as they encounter forces beyond normal experience.

'Widdershins', Oliver Onions, Martin Secker (1911)

Oliver Onions wrote much besides ghost stories and those in this volume are of uneven quality, but the book is included chiefly on account of 'The Beckoning Fair One', one of the best long ghost stories ever written, in which the dangers of renting buildings long unoccupied are fully realised.

'Uncanny Tales', F Marion Crawford, Tauchnitz Edition (1911)

F Marion Crawford is the only American author in my list and is not chiefly remembered now for his ghost stories. However, I read 'Man Overboard!' at an early age and, as a story of ghostly revenge it has seldom been bettered. Also in this volume are the much anthologised 'The Upper Berth', the vampire tale 'For the Blood is the Life' and 'The Screaming Skull' based on a legend concerning a Dorsetshire farmhouse.

'The Room in the Tower', E F Benson, Mills & Boon (1912)

E F Benson presents a challenge since his best stories are scattered throughout the four volumes of ghost stories published in his lifetime. So, as with M R James, I chose the first. The title story concerns another vampire, but there are plenty of other types of hauntings, including a very strange telephone in 'The Confession of Charles Linkworth'.

Benson's best story, by some distance in my opinion, is 'The Face' contained in 'Spook Stories' (Hutchinson, 1928), in which the heroine opens her door not to the husband who is rushing to save her, but to the spectre who will lead her to her death.

'On the Edge', Walter de la Mare, Faber and Faber (1930)

De La Mare was considered by Julia Briggs, author of the excellent 'Night Visitors', one of the finest exponents of the ghost story and the title of this book perfectly encapsulates his technique. Ghosts are presented, if at all, obliquely with the reader struggling to rationalise what is behind the words. De La Mare was a poet and many of his narrative works have the form of prose poems, including even his full length ghostly novel 'The Return'.

There are other De La Mare collections with equally fine stories, but this volume is chosen for two of my favourite ghost stories.

'Crewe' is a tale told in the waiting room at Crewe Railway Station, well known to me in my youth and as dreary then as in the story. I also can now never look at a scarecrow without remembering this story's haunting image of a scarecrow slowly getting nearer to its victim. 'The Green Room', set in a bookshop, is never far from my mind on any of those rare occasions where a bookseller has, as with the hero of the story, introduced me into a back room where only 'choicer customers' are allowed. But I have never (at least not to my knowledge) met the resident ghost.

'We Are for the Dark', Robert Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard, Jonathan Cape (1951)

From De La Mare we are led naturally to the book now widely recognised as marking a new beginning for the ghost story - no more spectres lurking on the stairs, but a new look at the strangeness within and around us. Aickman published six further volumes of strange stories after this collaboration with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. In this volume each author contributed three stories. The best of Howard's is 'Three Miles Up' set on a decidedly strange canal, both authors at the time being closely involved with the preservation of England's waterways. But pride of place must be awarded to 'The Trains', perhaps Aickman's finest story, in which two women walking in the moors of northern England take shelter at what turns out to be decidely the wrong sort of house. This is admittedly a hackneyed theme but Aickman's treatment is original and masterly and it is no surprise that he went on to be recognised as the best writer of strange stories in the second half of the twentieth century.

Most admirers of ghost stories would have made other choices for a list of 'best books', and I would love to have included Henry James, Edith Wharton and Mrs Oliphant, but no list can be infinite. Henry James would, in any event, be excluded since he himself did not publish a volume of ghost stories. 'The Ghostly Tales of Henry James', a superlative collection, was published many years after the author's death by his biographer Leon Edel and hence the selection made was not the result of a conscious choice made by James himself.

So, time to settle down with a good ghost story, but wait - who on earth can be knocking on the door at this time of night and just when did that wind get up so?

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Monday, 31 December 2012

From one Author to Another

It is always exciting to find a book inscribed by its author, even more exciting when the book is inscribed to another author. This makes the book far more interesting than just another 'signed' copy or one inscribed to an unknown person who just happened to attend a book signing. Of course, to dream of finding a copy of 'Moby Dick' inscribed by Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne or of 'Frankenstein' inscribed by Mary Shelley to Byron is to indulge in the wildest of fantasies, but setting the sights at a much lower level it is possible to find interesting associations.

Browsing on the shelves of the High Barn Library reveals only a few examples, but these all have a special resonance.

The earliest we obtained was a copy of Walter de la Mare's 'Memoirs of a Midget' (in fact No. 1 of the limited Collins edition) inscribed by the author to Wilson Follett, who was his American publisher and author of 'Modern American Usage' and editor of the collected editon of Stephen Crane's works. In this copy de la Mare has transcribed in ink his lovely poem 'The Moth', included in 'The Veil and other Poems'.

Also included is a typed letter, dated 1923, to Follett signed by de la Mare thanking him for his assistance in seeing the book through its proofs and assisting with its success in America. This was a serendipitous find in Blackwell's antiquarian bookshop in its glorious one time home of Fyfield Manor near Oxford.

Another lucky find was in the excellent Petersfield Bookshop in Hampshire. This was a copy of Arthur Machen's 'The Children of the Pool', inscribed by Machen in September 1936 to Oliver Warner, who wrote widely on naval battles and was the author of works on Nelson and General Wolfe.

The Powys brothers were all great inscribers of books and signed copies of their works turn up frequently.

I choose one from our Powys collection - a copy of Elizabeth Myers' 'Good Beds - Men Only', presented after her death by her husband Littleton Powys to Walter de la Mare.

This copy came from the library of Walter de la Mare sold by the recently closed Oxford bookseller Robin Waterfield, where we spent many happy hours browsing.

The name of William Beveridge is often in the news. He was the architect of the so-called Welfare State, the set of social reforms introduced by the post war Labour Government in the UK. Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas wrote a memoir of her time with the poet.

This was published in the volume 'World Without End' and Helen inscribed the copy in our collection to Sir William Beveridge.

One of the great editors of Victorian fiction was Everett F Bleiler (1920-2010), who worked at Dover Publications for over 20 years, editing editions of the works of many supernatural fiction writers, including J Sheridan Le Fanu, Mrs J H Riddell, Arthur Conan Doyle and others. These attractive Dover paperbacks were early additions to the High Barn Library.

Bleiler was also the author of the monumental 'Guide to Supernatural Fiction', published by Kent State University Press and which provides plot synopses of thousands of ghost stories contained in over 1700 books identifying themes, motifs and genres.

Our copy was presented by its author to Sam Moskowitz and contains a generous tribute from Bleiler to Moskowitz, who was born in the same year as Bleiler and became a leading proponent and editor of science fiction. He also edited several volumes of the previously uncollected sea stories of William Hope Hodgson.

Finally, something very different. The Doves Press, over the period 1900-1916, produced some of the most beautiful books ever made, under the direction of T J Cobden Sanderson and Emery Walker, who was responsible for the type faces, based on 15th century Venetian models. Famously Sanderson threw the majestic type into the River Thames after he fell out with Walker, in order to prevent its further use by his former partner.

One of the simplest and most beautiful of the books produced by the Doves Press was Ruskin's 'Unto This Last'. Our copy of this book was presented by Emery Walker, its designer, to Robert and Sylvia Lynd.

Robert Lynd was born in Belfast and became a prominent Republican, joining the Gaelic League (at a meeting of which he met Sylvia), and was a supporter of Sinn Fein. Settling in Hampstead, the Lynds became prominent literary hosts entertaining J B Priestley, Hugh Walpole, Victor Gollancz and James Joyce amongst others. My first encounter with Robert Lynd's writing was in my teens when I read his excellent introduction to Algernon Methuen's 'Anthology of Modern Verse 1900-1920', published in 1924.

And so it comes full circle, from a poetry anthology bought in the sixties, to a work of Ruskin printed in a masterpiece of the private press movement with connections to James Joyce and Irish republicanism. So many connections - and all in one printed book.

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Thursday, 1 November 2012

2012 Reading List

In order of reading, these are the books I have read in 2012, with brief comments and my own star ratings.
'Our Mutual Friend', Charles Dickens, ****, excellent mystery novel with good characters and atmospheric descriptions.
'Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology', Michael Wheeler, *****, fascinating account of the Victorian view of death, judgement, Heaven and Hell, using, amongst others, as examples 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'In Memoriam'.
'Little Dorrit', Charles Dickens, ****, again an excellent novel, full of incident and characterisations.
'The Grid Book', Hannah B Higgins, ***, descriptions and history of various grids, from bricks to printing, gridirons, nets and screens.
'American Fantastic Tales', Volume 1, Peter Straub (ed), ****, covers the period from Poe to the Pulps, a good selection.
'Dombey and Son', Charles Dickens, ****, Florence Dombey wins through against stern father. Child dearh of Paul Dombey as sentimental as you can get, but very powerful.
'Dickens: a Biography', Claire Tomalin, *****, superb biography, sets out her thoughts on the Nelly Ternan relationship.
'The Infinity of Lists', Umberto Eco, *****, wonderfully illustrated book with essays on various kinds of lists in literature, from Homer's list of ships in 'The Iliad', to Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'.
'The Arcades Project', Walter Benjamin, ****, massive compilation of notes from Benjamin's alternative history of Europe, as evinced by the Parisian arcades.
'Walter Benjamin's Archive', ***, catalogue of fragments from Benjamin's collection, with good introductory essay.
'Le Fanu's Ghost', Gavin Selerie, ***, overview of links between the Sheridans and J Sheridan Le Fanu, with extracts from books, poems etc.
'Darwin - a Life in Poems', Ruth Padel, ****, well annotated set of poems by Darwin's great grand-daughter tracing Darwin's life.
'The Old Curiosity Shop', Charles Dickens, ****, the dearh of Little Nell possibly the best moment in this very fine novel.
'I am Providence', S T Joshi, ****, massive two volume biography of H P Lovecraft', full of detail.
'American Fantastic Tales', Volume 2, Peter Straub (ed), ****, covers the period from the 1940s to the present; particular favourite 'Stone Animals' by Kelly Link.
'Curfew and other Eerie Tales', Lucy M Boston, ***, competent collection of ghost stories, the title story the best.
'David Copperfield', Charles Dickens, ****, the early chapters are the best, the relationship between David and Agnes becoming tedious as the book nears its conclusion.
'Strange Epiphanies', Peter Bell, ****, atmospheric supernatural stories, evoking the spirit of place with suitably nasty endings.
'Empire of Shadows', George Blake, ****, the epic story of Yellowstone, covering its exploration and development.
'Chief Joseph, Guardian of the People', Candy Moulton, ****, good history of the Nez Perse indians and their great leader, who finally surrendered after a 1500 mile retreat from the Wallowa Valley in Oregon to near the Canadian border.
'Lost Places', Simon Kurt Unsworth, ***, interesting ghost stories, but marred in places by poor style and far too explicit content.
'The Lakotaa and the Black Hills', Jeffrey Ostler, ***, good account of the relationship between the Lakota Sioux and the Black Hills and their continuing fight to regain their sacred land.
'Hard Road West', Keith Heyer Meldahl, *****, superb account of the geology along the gold rush trail to California. Well illustrated with many maps and cross sections.
'The Best Read Man in France', Peter Briscoe, ***, a bookseller in LA fights to prevent a collection of rare books being broken up to be digitised at the library he sold them to.
'Magic for Beginners', Kelly Link, ***, strange stories with unusual events and references back to Lovecraft and other fantasy writers.
'The Dewey Decimal System', Nathan Larson, **, crime novel set in a post terrorist New York. Violent and poorly written.
'The Pale King', David Foster Wallace', ****, unfinished novel about work in an IRS examination center in Peoria, Illinois. Full of detail about bureaucratic procedures, with some brillianr passages.
'The Fountainhead', Ayn Rand, ****, the struggles of architect Howard Roark against the forces of concensus in architecture. Roark battles to preserve his artistic integrity.
'Anthem, Ayn Rand, **, dystopian novel about a society in which all individuality has been subsumed to the collective will and the word 'I' does not exist. The hero breaks free.
'A Certain Slant of Light', Peter Bell, ****, good ghost stories in the M R James tradition with varied setttings.
'Reading Joyce', David Pierce, ***, helpful guide by a former teacher of Joyce, which includes some autobiographical material as well as good criticism.
'Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922, the Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance', Giles Milton, ****, harrowing account of the history of Smyrna culminating in its burning by the Turks.
'Safe Area Gorazde', Joe Sacco, excellent graphic novel about events in Bosnia between 1990 and 1995. The author spent time in the city after the conflict and talked with many survivors. The author is scathing about the role of the UN peacekeepers.
'Bleak House', Charles Dickens, ****, re-read and again much enjoyed. Esther Summerson ultimately becomes tiresome.
'Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel', Guinevere L Girest, *****, excellent history of Mudie's who dominated book distribution from the 1840s to the 1890s and whose insistence on the 3 volume novel set the fashion for many writers.
'The Haunting of Lamb House', Joan Aiken, ***, tells the story of three inhabitants of Lamb House at Rye, the best part being that about Henry James written in his style.
'E Nesbit's Tales of Terror', Edith Nesbit, good ghost stories, the best being 'Man Size in Marble'.
'Three Miles Up and other Strange Stories', Elizabeth Jane Howard, ****, the title story of a canal journey into a strange landscape is the best, but all are well written.
'We Are for the Dark', Robert Aickman, ****, collaboration between Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard, with each contributing three stories. Aickman's 'The Trains' is the best.
'Adventures of Augie March', Saul Bellow, ***, chronicles the early life of Augie, born in Chicago as he passes from job to job and woman to woman. Some good passages, particularly when the commonplace events of today are contrasted with Greek heroic legend, but I would not be tempted to read more Bellow.
'Dark Entries', Robert Aickman', ****, good atmospheric strange stories in which individuals find themselves in strange threatening locations. The best is 'Bind Your Hair' in which a woman becomes embroiled in pagan rituals in the Northamptonshire village her fiancee has taken her to to meet his parents.
'Powers of Darkness', Robert Aickman, ****, the best story is 'The Wine Dark Sea', set on a Greek island.
'Sub Rosa', Robert Aickman, ****, more atmospheric stories, particularly good are 'Never Visit Venice' and 'The Houses of the Russians'.
'Alone in Berlin', Hans Fallada, ****, a powerful novel set in 1940s Berlin as Otto Quangel and his wife mount their own resistance campaign against Hitler.
'Cold Hand in Mine', Robert Aickman, ****, another good collection, with the best story 'The Hospice'.
'Tales of Love and Death', Robert Aickman, ***, one or two very weak stories such as 'Growing Boys', but 'Residents Only' and 'Wood' compensate.
'Illusions', Robert Aickman, ***, the best story is 'The Fetch'.
'The Attempted Rescue', Robert Aickman, ***, Aickman's account of the first 30 years of his life. A bit self-absorbed.
'A Great Idea at the Time', Alex Beam, ****, a very good book about the Great Books project of the University of Chicago in the 1950s.
'Double Fold', Nicholas Baker, ***, a book about libraries and the assault on paper in the latter part of the 20th century. Very hard-hitting against the Library of Congress and the British Library.
'Nazi Germany and the Jews Vol 1, The Years of Persecution 1933-1939', Saul Friedlander, ****, a detailed history of this period and showing the indifference of all European nations to Hitler's policies.
'The Beetle', Richard Marsh, ***, a supernatural thriller that gets a bit tedious at times.
'18 Bookshops', Anne Scott, 3***, short essays on bookshops, both old and contemporary.
'Nazi Germany and the Jews Vol 2, The Years of Extermination 1939-1945', Saul Friedlander, ****, the conclusion of this massive study.
'Dolly - A Ghost Story', Susan Hill, **, a rather poor story.
'The Quark and the Jaguar - Adventures in the Simple and the Complex', Murray Gell-Mann, ***, a study of complex adaptive systems that loses its way a bit. Good discussion of quantum mechanics.

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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Mr Mudie and his Circulating Library

No serious collector of 19th century fiction can be unaware of the preponderance of novels originally published in three volumes. The so called 'three deckers', now relatively scarce and hence often prohibitively expensive, were once the staple reading of whole swathes of the newly emerging middle class. But they did not buy them; they were borrowed, a volume at a time from one of the circulating libraries and, more likely than not from one of those run by Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890).
From the 1840's to the 1890's Mudie's Select Library determined the reading habits of two generations of readers. Such was Mudie's power that an author's career probably depended on his or hers work being selected by the library. Confident that Mudie would take the book, publishers could then print runs of the work in their thousands, with a very high percentage going straight to Mudie's library at a discount price. Subscribers to the library, at a cost of one guinea per year, could then borrow a volume at a time. This arrangement suited authors, publishers and readers.

In London, readers flocked to Mudie's massive emporium on New Oxford Street, where armies of employees would rapidly find the desired volumes selected from Mudie's list.

In the large provincial towns there were more branches of Mudie, who also supplied books to local independent circulating libraries, where the same arrangements applied.
It was possible to purchase three deckers from Mudie, but they were very expensive and only the wealthy would have been able to add them to their private collections. Typically, the work would appear in a cheap single volume edition a year or so after first publication in three volumes. The genius of Mudie's modus operandi was that essentially three subscribers would be reading one book at the same time; hence three times the profit. He could also negotiate massive discounts with the publishers given the quantities he ordered; he took 500 copies of the first edition of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and 3,000 sets of the 3 volume 'Mill on the Floss' by George Eliot, though a typical order for an established writer would be 1,500 sets.
There were dissenting voices. Many argued that the straitjacket of three volumes led to over-long novels full of irrelevant sub-plots; conversely it was argued that the luxury of three volumes allowed generous margins and large font sizes essential for the elderly reader. Also Mudie, being a deeply religious man, appled selection criteria to his library that eliminated all books except those that could be 'safely read to the servants'. As the century neared its end the clamour for change was irrestistible; from authors, eager to try out new forms of shorter novel and frustrated by Mudie's arbitrary censorship, publishers keen to break Mudie's near monopoly and, perhaps most compellingly, from the new free public libraries springing up all over Britain.
In 1894, Mudie and his great contemporary competitor W H Smith agreed to end the three volume format and almost immediately, as a publishing form, it disappeared. From this time almost all novels first appeared in single volume editions; more rarely in two volumes. However, today, amongst the most desirable of nineteenth century books for the collector are the great three volume first editions of writers such as Thomas Hardy, J Sheridan Le Fanu and Anthony Trollope. Since these were borrowed in profusion, copies in fine condition are extremely scarce.

The High Barn Library has only one or two direct links back to Mudie. Volumes 1 and 2 (only) of a three volume set of Le Fanu's 'The Tenants of Malory' respectively bear on their front boards the distinctive yellow labels of Mudie's New Oxford Street Select Library and of Noyes's Circulating Library at Chippenham, supplied by Mudie.

The fate of Volume 3 is unknown. These date from 1867, when Mudie's power was at its height. However, there are two other complete three deckers on our shelves: Anthony Trollope's 'Ralph the Heir' (1871) and Mrs Ward's 'The History of David Grieve' dating from 1894 right at the end of Mudie's dominance.

The firm of Mudie continued into the 1930s but at a much reduced level, finally closing its doors shortly before the Second World War. However, W H Smith, who had established a monopoly on railway book stalls (rashly spurned by Mudie) in the mid nineteenth century, continue as a major book seller, but not, as originally, a lending library.
Subscription libraries had originated well before Mudie entered the scene, certainly by the early eighteenth century, but it was the sheer scale of Mudie's operations from the 1840s on that drove most competitors out of business. In the 1860s, for example, Mudie was increasing his stock at the rate of 170,000 volumes a year. It was estimated that Mudie's patrons comprised about half of the total number of families sufficiently educated to enjoy novel reading. Mudie's list did contain all types of reading matter - history, science, travel, theology, for example - but over no field did he exercise such absolute control as novel writing, and, from an artistic point of view, it can only be hoped that this level of control is not repeated in the future.
A wonderful history of Mudie's Circulating Library is contained in the study 'Mudie's Circulating Library & the Victorian Novel' by Guinevere L Girest (David & Charles, 1970). It makes fascinating reading and throws great light on many aspects of Victorian authors and their works. I am sure that, had Mudie demanded four voulmes per novel, we would now be enjoying Anthony Trollopes's 'The Four Clerks' rather than 'The Three Clerks', whose adventures so conveniently fall into three volumes.
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Friday, 26 October 2012

Edith Nesbit's Tales of Terror

In the excellent anthology 'The Supernatural Omnibus' edited by Montague Summers (which I acquired at an early age) are to be found two ghost stories under the name E Nesbit. These are 'Man Size in Marble' and 'John Charrington's Wedding'. In the former, the recumbent effigies of two knights rise from their tomb in a lonely church on All Saints' Eve and terrify to death the story's heroine Laura, who is found with the alabaster finger of one of the knights clutched in her hand. (Needless to say, the finger is subsequently found to be missing from the knight's effigy.) In the latter, John Charrington, determined to claim his bride on their wedding day, keeps his appointment even though he was killed in an accident some hours before the wedding. The strange nature of the groom at the wedding service is chillingly described; after the service the couple depart in their wedding carriage. The bride, of course, is subsequently found dead from shock and fright.

Strange that such harrowing stories came from the pen of Edith Nesbit, much better known as an author of childrens' books, including the much filmed and televised 'The Railway Children'.

I was reminded of these stories on a recent short trip to Romney Marsh, that strange part of Kent where sea and land merge across lonely shingle beaches and isolated churches cling to islands of pasture land slightly elevated above the surrounding flats.

It was at one such church, St Mary in the Marsh, that Edith Nesbit forced her way into our holiday, for here she is buried; there is an inscription to her in the church and outside, over her grave, a wooden memorial fashioned by her husband.

She lived the latter part of her life in nearby St Mary's Bay.

But it is in nearby Brenzett church where lie the knights who inspired her most famous ghost story.

In this church two John Fagges (father and son) lie side by side, dying in 1639 and 1646 respectively.

The little finger of the right hand of the front figure has been clearly repaired and it was this feature that Edith Nesbit captured in her story where the terrified Laura breaks off the knight's finger in her struggle. Brenzett is the setting for the story and Edith Nesbit captures something of the atmosphere of remote Romney Marsh churches. Laura's housekeeper in the story is called Mrs Dorman. When we first visited Brenzett the church was locked. We returned a couple of days later to find it opened for cleaning/flower arranging. This was being carried out by a Mrs Dorman, who was pleased to tell us that she shared a name with the housekeeper of the story. Or maybe she was just another of Edith Nesbit's ghosts sent to allow us to disturb the slumbers of the sleeping knights, who, at first sight were safely lying on their marble bed. But I would not wish to return on All Saints' Eve.

Edith Nesbit was not a prolific writer of ghost stories. Hugh Lamb edited a slim volume, published by Methuen in 1983, containing seven stories.

Perhaps the most impressive of the other stories is 'The Violet Car', in which a car takes supernatural revenge on a man who had earlier caused it to be driven off the edge of a cliff.

By a strange coincidence BBC Radio are broadcasting a series of Edith Nesbit's ghost stories in the week beginning October 29th, spanning All Saints' Eve. Let's hope the recumbent knights are not listening.

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