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Fifty Forgotten Books

RB Russell

And other storiesp. 255£12.99

Most readers have favorite books or authors that they feel have been overlooked or unfairly overlooked. RB Russell, an avid book collector, did something practical about this when in 1990 he co-founded Tartarus Press to reprint the works of the once popular Arthur Machen. Machen’s particular specialty was “weird fiction”, novels and stories that inhabit the frontier of this world and others, and Tartarus continued to republish other authors in this genre, notably Robert Aickman and Sarban (otherwise British diplomat John William Wall), as well as publishing new writers and a handful of classics.

Fifty Forgotten Books inevitably includes a number of Tartarus authors, not only writers of supernatural and otherworldly fiction, but also Alain-Fournier, AJ Symons, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Denton Welch. Russell happily acknowledges that the two The great Meaulnes and Corvo’s Quest are unforgettable enough to have been Penguin Modern Classics for several decades, while the work of Townsend Warner is regularly reprinted – to which one might add that Welch has an enthusiastic cult following that keeps his name and his works very much alive.

However, Russell more than makes up for this cavalier spread in his chapters on truly forgotten books. Alongside familiars (Baudelaire, Walter de la Mare) and sectarians (Anna Kavan, Jocelyn Brooke), there are authentic oddities, and he sometimes selects unexpected volumes from well-known authors for other kinds of books, like Ernest Dowson’s short stories or Gerald Heard’s supernatural tales.

One of the themes that runs throughout the book concerns writers who, even in their lifetime, have existed on the fringes, and it seems only fitting that Russell’s investigation opens and ends with two books titled the stranger. Russell came across the first of these, by Colin Wilson (1956), at the age of 14 attracted to existentialism, and it inaugurated his passion for collecting books. If Wilson’s book is hardly “forgotten”, it is now largely unread, while the other book that shares its title, Richard Wright’s 1953 novel, is arguably less familiar than its predecessor. native sona classic of black literature.

Other outsiders include Quentin S. Crisp (not to be confused with The Naked Civil Servant), whose autobiography The Notebooks of Paris (2017) portrays someone who “lives on the periphery of existence in terms of financial security, literary success and sexuality” – the ideal author of Tartarus. Less ideal in all respects, but nonetheless worthy of attention as writers, are the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, portrayed by Diary of a drug addict (1922), and MP Shiel, whose “remarkably morbid” short stories are collected in Xelucha and others (1975), and who in 1915 was sentenced to 16 months hard labor after being found guilty of having sex with his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

Anyone who has read Russell Past lives of old books (2020), which includes essays by several of the authors covered here, will know what to expect from this new volume. This is reminiscent of his own description of the work of Alexis Lykiard. Jean Rhys revisited (2000), “a book of rambling and digressive fragments and impressions”. Russell frequently departs from ostensibly intended titles to describe other books and authors or to reminisce about his life as a collector, publisher, and member of Arthur Machen appreciation societies.

Much of it is entertaining, especially its bookseller tales, some of which are as murky and mysterious as anything in the recommended titles. For example, a chaotic bookstore owner in Brighton tried to seduce our teenage author, allegedly worked for the security services, then vanished without a trace, leaving the shop unattended, only resurfacing when he died. about six years later.

While not every mention of Russell is compelling, who wouldn’t be tempted by books like Richard Marsh’s? The beetle (1897), about an ‘ancient Egyptian shape-shifting entity’ seeking revenge against a politician, who in his day far surpassed that of Bram Stoker Dracula; or Murray Constantine’s “heartbreaking” swastika party (1937), who imagines, long before Robert Harris and Philip Roth, a dark future under the Nazis?

Are particularly attractive Copsford (1948), Walter J. Murray’s account of his attempt to make money selling herbs while living in a semi-derelict remote cabin (also rented by Grant McIntyre in a recent issue of the quarterly magazine Slightly knocked down); by Ronald Fraser flower ghosts (1926), about a young botany student at Kew who “discovers an amorous affinity with a giant orchid”; and Rebecca Lloyd’s Cephalin Child (2019), in which an enigmatic 11-year-old girl is exploited by fraudulent spiritualists in 1850s London.

Russell informs us that a recent survey found that, contrary to popular belief, there are “more used bookstores now than ever before”, and this engaging and idiosyncratic volume should send readers rush towards them in pursuit of the curious and sought after. works he defends.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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