Be afraid... be very afraid. Ian McMillan makes a terrifying literary discovery deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.
As a young man I was a big fan of writing that made me jump, that made me scared to go to bed without the light on and the sound of my mam and dad watching the television downstairs.
The books I read weren't horror stories exactly, they weren't full of blood and gore and severed heads and paragraphs full of unspeakable torture; they were subtler than that, full of menace and a frisson of something that I couldn't quite understand.
I liked reading HG Wells's more poetic weird stories, some of the less bloodthirsty tales of HP Lovecraft and the gentler pieces in the long-running Pan Books of Horror Stories edited by the great Herbert Van Thal.
Many of these supernatural scribes fitted into the category of lost writers, authors whose light burns brightly and briefly and who then return to the charity shops and library sales
that most, if not all, writers end up in.
As I've grown up, I've spent many years looking for a new source of this kind of unsettling book that I remember from my youth, and now I've found it in the shape of Tartarus Press, a wonderful publisher of reprints of lost and neglected strange and supernatural writing, a haunted wing of English, European and American prose that you don't want to walk down on your own.
The best thing about Tartarus Press, however, is that they're based in Yorkshire, near Leyburn in the otherwise not-too-scary Dales. Unless it's a moonless night. Unless your car's broken down. Unless you're on your own with a pile of Tartarus Press books in your bag.
Their latest publication is The Buckross Ring and other stories of the Strange and Supernatural by LAG Strong; I'd never heard of LAG Strong either, but the informative introduction by Richard Dalby fleshes out his writing activities from poems to biographies, detective fiction and children's books.
Strong was an example of that almost extinct species, the Man of Letters, able to turn his hand to any kind of writing for the modest cheque and the satisfaction of a job well done.
LAG was particularly interested in the supernatural, though, being fascinated by the paranormal and this is reflected in the odd and genuinely chilling tales in The Buckross Ring. In The Doll, there's voodoo in the kind of quiet country setting that makes these kinds of things even more shuddery and abnormal, and the prose at the end of the story achieves a kind of bleak and affecting poetry: "She stood, her head thrust forward. An appalling desolation came over her. Her knees weakened, she tottered, and sank down with her back against the wall. Her grief became agony. Everything was gone. She had gained nothing. She was caught, beyond redemption, in a net of evil."
I love the cadences of the writing, the use of words like "agony" and "grief" and "evil", huge and baggage-strewn abstract nouns that you'd normally advise against using if you were running a writing workshop, but which in the context of these superbly crafted stories makes perfect sense.
At the end of the book there's an essay on the short story by LAG Strong that helps you to work out his approach to his craft: "Every story which I have mentioned gives me that sense of completed experience which I postulated at the start... there are no deviations, and each cut would be a loss. In short, each story has an aim worthy of an artist, and has succeeded in hitting it."
Crafted short stories are the mainstay of Tartarus' output: other recent publications include The Sand Man and Other Night Pieces by ETA Hoffmann, the shadowy German writer best known for being the inspiration for Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, but for little else these days.
When you read the stories in The Sand Man you can understand how Hofmann's dark paragraphs influenced Poe and Kafka and perhaps a later generation of writers of Weird Fiction like the ones collected in Strange Tales Volume Two, an anthology of stories by fictioneers like Joel Knight, Mark Valentine and Rhys Hughes.
Like all of Tartarus's output, the Strange Tales volume is beautifully produced and is a pleasure to read and put on the shelf. Tartarus books aren't cheap, but quality rarely is.
Tartarus also publishes Wormwood, a journal of "Literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent" which opens the door to more lost and neglected writers than you can shake a library card at: the latest issue is chock full of pieces on writers like Edward Lucas White, Vere Shortt and William Hope Hodgson, and I want to read every book they've ever written.
So, from an unlikely setting in the shadow of Leyburn and the rolling hills of Swaledale, there's a powerhouse of odd
and compelling writing that I urge you to check out. In daylight, of course...
Tartarus Press, Coverley House, Carlton,
Leyburn. North Yorkshire, DL8 4AY.
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