Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
Mark Valentine is the author of several volumes of short stories including The Collected Connoisseur (Tartarus Press 2010) and Secret Europe (Ex Occidente Press 2012), both shared titles with John Howard. He has also written a biography of Arthur Machen (Seren 1990); and Time, a Falconer (Tartarus Press 2011), a study of the diplomat and fantasist “Sarban“. He currently edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.
John Kenny: In your new collection, Selected Stories, due out soon from Swan River Press, you demonstrate a certain fascination with a very particular time: the first two decades of the 20th Century. What drew you to this period?
Mark Valentine: A lot of the stories are set in the aftermath of the First World War. It was a time when empires ended, nations were made and unmade, faiths were shaken, many people were refugees, exiles, wounded, bereaved, uprooted. In some of the stories I try to convey aspects of that vast upheaval through incidents in the lives of individuals. And to show that, despite it all, certain human values and visions persisted.
JK: It was certainly a period of rapid change. In many ways, the First World War marked the end of the old world and the dawning of the modern world. Perhaps, then, this is the perfect period for your stories, given their subject matter.
MV: Yes, and another reason I have been drawn to the interwar period is that it saw the emergence of what we might loosely call the Central European tradition in fantastic literature. Until recently, this had been largely overlooked in English-speaking circles. But there has been a new interest in such authors as Gustav Meyrink, Bruno Schulz and Leo Perutz, and others from interwar Central Europe, who have a distinctive set of ideas and themes, which I think are worth pursuing.
JK: You’ve managed to capture the style of writers working at that time. Apart from the authors you’ve mentioned, who influenced you in the writing of the stories included in this collection and generally?
MV: Well, my earliest stories in the field were nearly all about my aesthetical occult detective, the Connoisseur. And they were a result of my reading in the ‘decadent’ writers of the Eighteen Nineties, and the vintage late-Victorian and Edwardian writers of supernatural horror, such as Machen, Hodgson, Shiel and de la Mare. I originally wrote essentially for friends, in the small press – such as Jeff Dempsey and David Cowperthwaite of Dark Dreams magazine, or Colin Langeveld of The Doppelganger Broadsheet. I still really relish the sort of traditional ghost story that typically starts off with one or two characters settling in to a strange old house that has remained mysteriously empty for months, and has a suspiciously low rent….
JK: In stories such as ‘The Walled Garden on the Bosphorus’, ‘Carden in Capea’ and ‘The Amber Cigarette’, you touch on that concept of the fundamental unknowability of the cosmos that Lovecraft was fond of exploring. Can you tell us a little about the origins of those stories?
MV: The first of these began with a sentence or two in Orhan Pamuk‘s book on Istanbul, which mentioned gardens leading down to the Bosphoros. He says very little, but the image set me thinking about what they would be like, and who would be in them, and what might have changed through the city’s history. I had also been reading of the fraught period when refugees from the Russian Civil War flooded into the city, at the same time as the Ottoman Empire itself was being dismantled by the Allies. All this seemed an appropriate background for a character entranced, as I am, by outré heresies and Gnostic myths. Most of those mentioned in the story are genuine, with only one half-invented.
‘Carden in Capea’ reflects an interest in vanishing languages and the inexpressible, or barely expressible.
‘The Amber Cigarette’ was an attempt to emulate Machen’s ‘Ornaments in Jade’. I suppose all of these stories are about a search for something other.
JK: Yes, I do find those outré heresies and Gnostic myths fascinating myself. Is it just the sheer strangeness of them that appeals to you? Or do you think there are nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned from them? And do you think they simply had their time or were they driven to extinction?
MV: Well, I’ve always been attracted by the edges and hidden byways of things rather than the mainstream. I mistrust popular or majority tastes or prejudices in virtually every sphere – not least because history shows how often they are wrong. So yes I do think there are nuggets to be found in even the strangest places – together with much that is simply bizarre, though entertaining. I don’t think these can ever be made extinct – they just adopt different masks.
When we look back at classic authors we often see them reflect majority attitudes or beliefs that are now unacceptable. I sometimes wonder what the equivalent of those is today – which things the future will look back on and find ridiculous or repugnant. I’m hoping nationalism will be one. Quite a few of my stories in this selection are about times and places where nationalism is in question – international zones, borderlands, minorities, cosmopolitan cities.
JK: Certainly that’s the case with ‘A Certain Power’. You’ve captured that sense of shifting power struggles perfectly. Are the city and events in this story completely fictitious?
MV: ‘A Certain Power’ is an alternative history story. There was a point in the Russian Civil War when the tsarist forces could well have taken St Petersburg. Mannerheim, the forceful Finnish general, offered to assist them in return for recognition of Finnish independence (it had been a Russian province). The acting tsarist leader, Admiral Kolchak, far away in the East, refused – unwisely, as we can now see. The Whites were already on the outskirts of the city, and Finnish help would certainly have tipped the balance. My story imagines this did happen, and then what followed, with the perhaps slightly less likely outcome that St Petersburg became an international city (as happened with Danzig).
JK: Also, the historical backdrop to ‘The Unrest at Aachen’ is vividly conveyed. Would I be right in assuming you’ve based this mostly on the actual lead up to the Great War?
MV: Yes, ‘The Unrest at Aachen’ is based on actual events before the First World War. The succession to the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg was exactly as described, and the Kaiser’s request to open the tomb of Charlemagne is also authentic – it was reading of this curious incident that sparked the story.
JK: Another aspect of your work is the palpable sense of place. Have you visited any of the cities you’ve based your stories in?
MV: I haven’t been to any of the cities described in my stories, except Prague. But I do try to get the descriptions right, mostly through studying maps, memoirs and old postcards.
JK: One of my favourites in the collection is ‘The Bookshop in Nový Svĕt’, primarily for the basic premise, which I think is one of the most ingenious ideas I’ve come across in a long time. Did the idea drop into your head fully formed or was it something you had to tease out?
MV: I think the idea for the bookshop story, set in Prague, probably came from thinking about Franz Kafka’s job, which was for a workers’ compensation scheme, an early form of social insurance. I perhaps also relished the challenge of trying to make something poetic and fantastical about actuarial calculations. And, taking a tip from Meyrink, I wanted to play with the thought that ideas might have a life of their own, escaping their creator.
JK: Another favourite is ‘The Dawn at Tzern’, mainly for the gentle quality of melancholy evoked by the postmaster’s clinging to the old order. I wonder if such a situation must have prevailed at the time, certainly in semi-rural areas.
MV: Yes, we’re used to the idea now that all news must be instant and near-universal. But in the early 20th century even news as momentous as an Emperor’s death would not travel that fast, and might not at first be quite believed. In ‘The Dawn at Tzern’, I tried to imagine how such news would reach one of the most distant outposts of the empire and how the villagers would respond.
JK: Tell us about your editing of Wormwood. How long has it been in existence and what is its remit? And how do you balance this with your writing?
MV: Wormwood’s twentieth issue is due next year, so we must have been going almost ten years. It began because Tartarus Press (Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker) shared my thought that there were not many places for discussion of the literature of the fantastic, or the supernatural and decadent in literature. We’ve always tried to cover obscurer writers as well as the major names; European writers as well as those in English; and decadence as a literary form, which is quite close to the fantastic. I’ve been fortunate to have some excellent and loyal columnists and contributors, and publishers who do all the difficult formatting, design and publishing work, so it really hasn’t felt a task for me at all, and certainly hasn’t got in the way of my writing.