Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Midwinter Entertainment

Mark Beech (ed)
Egaeus Press

An entertainment consisting of 288 pages; dedicated to short, yellowish days and long nights, to heavy curtains and the cracks and pops of burning logs, to frost-encroached byways and sturdy old inns, to skeletal trees and hungry black birds; and to the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.

Featuring many curious pieces, including several newly written stories (amongst them a brand new Connoisseur tale by Mark Valentine & John Howard), a smattering of rarely collected obscurities, a couple of never before translated artifacts and much more.

The full contents are as follows...

Meet Me at the Frost Fair by Alison Littlewood
The Monkey & Basil Holderness by Vincent O’Sullivan
A Matter of Fact by Marion Fox
The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy (A Tale in Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Snow-Image’) by Sheryl Humphrey
Drebbel, Zander & Zervan by Ron Weighell
Second Master by Mark Valentine
Window Widows by Avalon Brantley
The Secret by Anatole Le Braz (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Longing for Which by Sara Rich
Barefoot Withouten Shoon by Tina Rath
A Winter’s Night by Arthur Symons
How Shall Dead Men Sing? (The Supernatural Affair of Lord Alfred Douglas & Oscar Wilde) by Nina Antonia
Better Than Borley Rectory by Jane Fox
The Harmony of Death (A Pianist's Most Terrible Experience) by Havelock Ettrick
Il va neiger... by Francis Jammes (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Celestial Tobacconist by Mark Valentine & John Howard
Finvarragh by Nora Hopper
From the Mouth of Mad Pratt by Ross Smeltzer
In St. James’s Park by Hubert Crackanthorpe
Aut Diabolus Aut Nihil by X.L.
Somewhere Snow by Jonathan Wood

Mark Valentine (by R.B. Russell)
When this was first announced last year I gazed longingly at the mailout, positively salivating over the prospect of a brand new 'Connoisseur' story by Mark Valentine and John Howard.  When it finally appeared though the price tag (and this is in no way a criticism, it's a beautifully presented book) was way out of my newly unemployed pockets.  Happily, post Christmas a copy came to light on a popular auction site for a third less than the asking price and so I decided to take the plunge and I'm very glad I did.

The book offers a mix of tales old and tales new, occasional poetry and a long discussion on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  Of these, poetry isn't my particular bag and whilst there was nothing that made me turn up my nose there was nothing that raised an eyebrow either. Nina Antonia's Oscar Wilde piece was certainly interesting but for someone like me with barely a passing interest in other people's personal lives it was ultimately a distraction from the fictions.

Alison Littlewood
The book opens strongly with Alison Littlewood's elemental tale of all consuming loss, 'Meet Me At The Frost Fair', followed by the body horror of Vincent O'Sullivan's 1895 tale 'The Monkey and Basil Holderness'.  Sheryl Humphrey's 'The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy' had far too much of the folktale about it to fully satisfy but the ever welcome presences of Ron Weighell with his charming tale of books, obsession and alchemical pursuits 'Drebbel, Zander and Zervan' and Mark Valentine with his story of the various holders of the title of 'Master of the Queen's Mysteries' in 'The Second Master', soon get the book back very much on track.

Avalon Brantley's 'Window Widows' is an enjoyable haunted house tale that feels a lot older than it evidently is.  It's followed by a translation of a story called 'The Secret' from 1900 which begins with perhaps the worst opening line I've ever read and doesn't improve from there.

Sara Rich's 'The Longing for Which' reveals itself to be an enjoyable tale of obsession and possession which is followed by Tina Rath's equally readable story of possessions and freedom, 'Barefoot Withouten Shoon'.

With Havelock Ettrick's 'The Harmony of Death' editor Mark Beech finds another intriguing old tale of a pianist subjected to a 'Most Terrible Experience' whilst Jane Fox's 'Better Than Boxley Rectory' is an engagingly written but ultimately disappointing and rather silly story that takes far to long in the telling.

John Howard
And so we arrive at the very welcome return of The Connoisseur in 'The Celestial Tobacconist' as our esteemed aesthete participates in both the finest of tobaccos and a ritual performance to resurrect an ancient pagan sect.  As ever with the duo of Valentine and Howard the tale is beautifully written and enchantingly seductive.

The trio of tales that close out the book begin with the 'Vault of Horror' type twisty demonic shenanigans of Ross Smeltzer's 'From the Mouth of Mad Pratt' whose ending you can see coming from many miles away.  Much more enjoyable is 'Auf Diabolus Auf Nihil' by X.L. and dating from 1895 which despite being written in a style drier than a sand sandwich is alluringly creepy.

The book ends with 'Somewhere Snow' by Jonathan Wood which tells a slightly hallucinatory tale of loneliness and stories that unfolds slowly to give the book the subdued and slightly melancholic close that a book this mesmerically charged deserved.


Note - As I was typing up this review I learned of the recent death of contributing author Avalon Brantley.  Our thoughts go out to her, her family and her friends and we dedicate this review to her memory in the knowledge that her work will be enjoyed for years to come.


  1. This sounds fantastic, I'll keep an eye out for it.

    1. Hi Rob. yeah, it's well worth tracking down.