Monday, 23 April 2012

From Arkham House to Sauk City via H P Lovecraft

In June 2010 we drove into Sauk City in rural Wisconsin; not a big place, but typical of many American small towns and well looked after by its residents.

This was in the way of a pilgrimage. As a teenager I had devoured the stories of H P Lovecraft and was aware that most of these first saw publication in book form in a volume called "The Outsider and Others", published by Arkham House at Sauk City, Wisconsin. For a long time this remained a name of legend, more imagined than real; another creation, if you like, of Lovecraft's dreams and nightmares.

I had never imagined that one day I would actually see an Arkham House book, let alone own one. But then, at Ilkley Book Fair in the late 1970s, a copy of an early Arkham House book was displayed on one of the stands. This was "The House on the Borderland" by the British writer William Hope Hodgson, another favourite author.

After initial hesitation on account of the price, the book returned home with us and was the first of a number of Arkham House volumes that now are housed in a separate bookcase.

It was the death of H P Lovecraft in 1937 that led to the founding of Arkham House. Up to that time Lovecraft's stories had been largely confined to pulp magazines such as 'Weird Tales'. However, two of his admirers, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, felt that his work deserved more solid recognition. After failing to find a mainstream publisher (Derleths's publishers Scribner's turning the idea down) they founded their own publishing house and in 1939 brought out "The Outsider and Others", a large volume containing the best of Lovecraft's work.

Since then Arkham House has continued to publish works of other authors and continues to this day, though under new ownership. Their catalogue contains much of the best of what has been termed 'weird fiction', i.e. ghost and horror stories, science fiction and fantasy.

Arkham House, after a slow start, produced some 40 titles in its first decade. Some of the authors were previous pulp fiction regulars such as Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith and further volumes of Lovecraft appeared regularly.

August Derleth also contributed some of his own copious work. However, they also published mainstream gothic and ghost story writers such as J Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Lady Cynthia Asquith, L P Hartley, Walter de La Mare, Arthur Machen and H Russell Wakefield.

In 1947 one of Arkham House's most desirable (and hence now most expensive) books was published. This was the debut volume of science fiction stories by Ray Bradbury, "Dark Carnival", (published later in the UK as "The October Country"). This volume contains some of Bradbury's best and most anthologised stories such as 'Skeleton' and 'The Small Assassin' and is sadly not on our shelves. The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw more works by August Derleth, reprints and further compilations of Lovecraft, including his letters, published in 5 volumes by Arkham House.

Robert Bloch, author of 'Psycho' and admirer of Lovecraft, was also featured. Works by the British writers M P Shiel and William Hope Hodgson also appeared. The British fantasy author Ramsey Campbell saw his first appearance in print in 1964 when Arkham House brought out "The Inhabitants of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants", the result of correspondence between the teenage Campbell and August Derleth.

In 1999 a history and bibliography of the press was published, edited by Derleth's successor as Lovecraft's editor, S T Joshi as the 192nd Arkham House book.

Fittingly the next volume was a retrospective 60th anniversary anthology entitled "Arkham's Masters of Horror". It is nice to report that I obtained both these volumes new during holidays in the USA.

Nowadays, Arkham House books are found more often in the UK, but our own collection of Arkham House books is a constant reminder of exciting visits to bookstores in the USA. On our pilgrimages to Lovecraft's home town of Providence, we have browsed in bookstores old and new and it is good to find that he is remembered so well in the city he loved so much.

In a rather down at heel section of North Main Street we found the Other World's Bookstore and here was perhaps the most complete set of used Arkham House volumes I have encountered in a single bookstore. Fortunately, across the street was a 'Dunkin Donuts' where the family could regroup and gain confidence for the forthcoming purchases. Then in downtown Providence is the excellent Cellar Stories Bookstore where other volumes have been found.

Of the new bookstores the Brown University Bookstore on College Hill, near Lovecraft's home, were selling bookmarks with Lovecraft quotes on when we visited. And at one new bookstore, on our first visit to Providence I first saw the 3 volume Arkham House edition of Lovecraft's works and the 5 volumes of the letters, all new and gleaming in protected dustwrappers. All were in our luggage on the journey home.

Other favourite USA bookstores, where I have bought Arkham House volumes are the Avenue Victor Hugo bookshop in Boston (now gone), Allen Scott in Portland, Maine (also gone), By the Book in Phoenix and, the late lamented Borders in Boston, which often had in print titles.

It is good to see that Sauk City remembers the writer who made the name a magnet for afficionados of weird fiction. In a prolific career, August Derleth produced many novels set in his native Wisconsin, volumes of poetry and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. But, I suspect it is as the founder of Arkham House and protector of Lovecraft's legacy that he will be best remembered.

It is perhaps an irony that, for a writer once so ignored by the mainstream, publishers are now competing to bring out new editions of Lovecraft's stories. In recent years we have seen editions by Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage, Gollancz, Barnes and Noble and the prestigious Library of America, recognition, albeit belatedly, of August Derleth's judgement in launching the imprint that kept Lovecraft's name alive.

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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Two bookshops in Bath

The Georgian city of Bath has been a presence in our lives since we moved to live in Somerset in the early 1970s. Even though we moved away some 3 years later, we have been pulled back to its magical streets and crescents periodically ever since.

So it was that we found ourselves in Bath on the first Saturday in April in 2012. Now Bath means many things - Roman Baths, hot springs, John Wood's magnificent Circus, Jane Austen's famous view, to name but a few.

But it is also the bookshops of Bath that have always held a special place for me. Not unexpectedly, our elder daughter's first public outing was to the PBFA Antiquarian Bookfair held at the Octagon in June 1974, a cople of weeks after her birth.

Sadly, there has been a steady erosion of independent bookshops in Bath since the heady days of the 1970s. Thus we have lost Bowes and Bowes from Milsom Street, the Kingsmead Bookshop from the once lovely Kingsmead Square, George Gregory from Green Street, the Bibliotique from Chapel Row, the Corridor Bookshop from the Corridor and so on and so on. However, there are two bookshops in Bath, for which all booklovers can be grateful. They are very differerent, but in their ways represent all that is best about bookshops, old and new.

The firm of George Bayntun has, according to its website, been at the same site in Manvers Street since 1901 and internally the shop and bindery have not appreciably changed for some 70 years. The binders Bayntun Riviere were founded in 1829 and still produce beautiful bindings, which can be viewed at their shop.

We have been visiting Bayntun's since moving to Somerset in 1972 and on our latest visit it was as good as ever. You do have to ring the bell now to gain entry and entry to the basement, where the general second hand books are kept, is now via the main shop rather than by going down the stone steps leading from the street.

The ground floor presents a dazzling array of fine books in luxurious bindings, housed in separate bookcases, mainly glass fronted. The picture below is taken from the Bayntun website.

On passing through the door at the back, stairs up take you to the antiquarian room, a large open room lined with bookshelves; stairs down take you to the second hand stock in the large basement. Here I have spent many hours over the years browsing the shelves and making purchases from time to time. Bayntun bindings are not cheap, but in a rash moment I did purchase one or two, duly noted below:

Bayntun's bindery is still thriving and it is difficult to see any reasons why this venerable bookshop should not continue to be a mecca for booklovers for another hundred years.

The next shop I visited was the very different Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, a new bookshop between Milsom Street and Queen Square.

This was our second visit; on the first my wife was introduced to "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and has been devouring Murakami ever since. There are three levels of books, covering all subjects and somehow there is always something here that attracts the attention. But best of all is the bibliotherapy room on the first floor where there is aways coffee available and a comfortable chair where energy may be recouped for a further foray into the many rooms and odd corners of this excellent bookshop, voted recently Independent Bookseller of the Year.

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The Cornhill Magazine

In early 1975 I travelled from Bath by train to London for a farewell drink with colleagues in the Civil Service at the Empress State Building in Earl's Court (I was changing career direction and we were about to leave Somerset for the coast of Anglesey). After the farewells had all been made, there was time before the evening train to hasten down the Earl's Court Road to a bookshop I had visited several times before. This, I think, was called Scudamore Books, now long gone like so many in busy shopping streets.

At the back of the shop I noted a pile of stout octavo, mainly leather bound books; these were various volumes of the 'Cornhill Magazine' dating from the 1860s to the 1880s.

Browsing in them I noted works by Thackeray, Trollope, Thomas Hardy and others in serial form, together with fine illustrations by artists such as Millais and George du Maurier. So, what to do? There were 14 volumes in all; leaving some behind was, of course, unthinkable. This was clearly a moment made for the dedicated book buyer, so negotiations began and we settled on 50p a volume, making a total price of £7. What followed was a nightmare journey to Paddington, by foot and tube (I think it was also raining) carrying four large bags with a total book weight of 16kg, then train to Bath, and finally home to Midsomer Norton with the handles of the bags by now pretty much welded into my fingers.

It was then that serious browsing began to find out what further treasures lay within. The volumes I had were not a continuous run, but there were some small runs within the set and some complete novels, such as "Wives and Daughters", by Mrs Gaskell, "The hand of Ethelberta" by Thomas Hardy and "The Small House at Allington" by Trollope. The volumes each comprised 6 monthly parts and typically a novel would span two or three voilumes.

Since that initial puchase we have added more volumes to fill the gaps and we now have a run of the first 18 volumes (i.e. 9 years) and a further 6 volumes, the final one being Jan-Jun 1883.

The Cornhill Magazine was founded in 1860 under the editorship of Thackeray and, amazingly, continued publication until 1975, although its best years were in the early part of its life. Its publishers were Smith, Elder, the publishers of Charlotte Bronte and John Ruskin and a later editor was Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia (Woolf) and Vanessa (Bell). The magazine was named after its place of publication in the heart of London's publishing district. The 1860s were, perhaps the highwater mark for literary magazines and the Cornhill competed for circulation with Charles Dickens' "All the Year Round" (founded in 1859) but was a much more attractive publication, with its fine illustrations.

The first issue commenced publication of one of Trollope's finest novels "Framley Parsonage", illustrated by J E Millais.

The first few months also featured Thackeray's "Roundabout Papers" and George Macdonald's supernatural story "The Portent", illustrated by W J Linton.

Another highlight in Volume 1 is the fragment of Charlotte Bronte's last novel "Emma", published here for the first time, with a note on the author by Thackeray.

Volume 2 saw the commencement of publication of John Ruskin's "Unto This Last".

This turned out to be too radical for the conservative owner George Smith and the Cornhill ceased publication of the work after four parts. In book form, though, it went on to be one of Ruskin's bestselling and most enduring books and a great influence on socialist philosophy.

1862 saw George Eliot's "Romola" commenced, together with Trollope's "The Small House at Allington", illustrated again by J E Millais.

The 1860s are justly renowned for the large number of classics of English literature published in this decade and also for the excellence of the artists who supplied the illustrations for these novels, the Cornhill containing some of the best work of these artists. Browsing in the first 18 volumes (covering the 1860s) I find in addition to the novels mentioned above:

"Cousin Phyllis" and "Wives and Daughters" by Mrs Gaskell, these were beautifully illustrated by George du Maurier.

The latter novel remained unfinished at the time of the author's death, which is again noted by the editor, with an indication of how the novel may have finished.

"Armadale", one of Wilkie Collins' most brilliant mystery novels.

"Lovell the Widower", "Denis Duval" and "The Four Georges" by Thackeray.

In addition, there are works by Charles Lever, Mrs Oliphant and Vernon Lee (famous now for her ghost stories).

The standard may have fallen off after the first decade, but new generations of writers are represented in subsequent years. Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd" ran through 1874, while his "The Hand of Ethelberta" ran for 12 months from July 1875. Thomas Hardy's illustrator for "Far from the Madding Crowd" was the young Helen Paterson (who he praised highly).

After her marriage to William Allingham, she published enduring colour picture books, such as "Happy England" and "The Cottage Homes of England", which have been much reprinted and offer a bucolic view of English rural life. Henry James' "The Siege of London" commenced publication in January 1883.

As well as the novels (for which I imagine the monthly issues were mainly bought in their tens of thousands), there were articles on various aspects of philosophy, art, social conditions, politics and a range of other subjects. In here, for example, is Thackeray's generous eulogy to his great rival Dickens after the latter's death in 1870.

Our small run of Cornhill Magazines ends in 1883 and I have not browsed in the magazine after this date. However, the volumes carried home from Earl's Court have stayed with us through various house moves and library re-arrangements and have always had a place of honour on the shelves as befitting one of the greatest of all literary magazines. It is a wonderful place in which to read some of the best writing of the Victorian period. It is also the place to see some of the best book illustrations of one of Britain's finest artists, John Everett Millais, who contributed no less than 30 full page engravings to the Cornhill as well as some initial letter illustrations.

In a reversal of its original journey one of these Cornhill volumes returned to London some years ago to be used in an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite book illustration at Tate Britain, curated, I am understandably proud to say, by the daughter of this very mad book-collector.

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