31 December 2010

E.H. Visiak 'Medusa' (1929)

E.H. Visiak. MEDUSA: A STORY OF MYSTERY AND ECSTASY, & STRANGE HORROR. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1929.

Current Selling Prices
$650 - $1100 /£400-£700

E.H. Visiak, was the pseudonym of Edward Harold Physick. He was born in 1878 and died in 1972. I have had books signed by him in the late 1960s- usually in a very spidery hand. His poetry is relatively common and often turns up signed, as does his Milton scholarship. His first book The Haunted Island: A Pirate Romance (Elkin Mathews L 1910) is quite scarce. Bleiler defines it as 'adventure stories with fantastic elements' and it is an uncommon but not impossible book. There are 3 copies on the web, two with the same U.S based dealer and another ('...the author's excessively scarce first novel') with a South African conglomerate, the same bunch that want a wallet-punishing £8000 for the EXCESSIVELY SCARCE first issue (black cloth) of John Fowles The Collector a book that I had, until now, thought was in the descendant. A friend who was there this summer for the UEFA World Cup said there were some good books in Johannesburg but almost all severely, even excessively, overpriced. Even Dublin has more bargains. Their price on the Visiak, a less than brilliant example, is £800 where a 'monkey' (£500) might be more appropriate.

As for Visiak's Medusa, a weird story of a voyage to unknown waters, Clute and Grant in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) describe it thus:
"...as hard to categorize as Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS (1920). The tale moves gradually, in a slow crescendo, from its beginnings in a normal-seeming nineteenth-century England through adventures at sea and finally into a literal pit of fantasy -- a vast circular hole occupied by the eponymous sea monster which eats sexually aware men alive. The protagonist is a young boy who remains sexually innocent, though haunted by other guilts: he survives while his companions perish."
The great California fantasy collector John Ruyle was more succinct - in his copy he wrote (in pencil) "Degenerate survivors of Atlantis, psychoactive rays; unspeakable horror! WEIRD!"

There are 13 copies of the 1929 first on ABE at between £250 and £1600, six in jackets, four with the same dealer, the Quaritch of fantasy, who describes each as 'uncommon in jacket.' Medusa seems to fall into the category of 'common, rare book' but a sharp copy at less than £500 is still a good buy. The blogster z7 noting its 'very verbose style' found it a 'chore to read' and quotes Kew in his 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels "... if David Lindsay had written Treasure Island in the throes of a peyote-induced religious experience...Well, if Coleridge had given Melville a hand on Moby Dick after a few pipes of opium...." Given these encomiums the book's outlook has to be good - once a dozen collectors step forward and buy the overhanging online stock. Could take a while.

Normally when books gather like this the law of supply and demand takes over, this is somewhat stymied by most copies being with one seller who is holding steady; however dealers pursuing cash often break rank and price the book to actually sell (an invisible process that may well be happening...) The pic above is of the 1946 re-issue with a preface by Denis Saurat. A copy of this edition made £130 at a Sussex auction this year. The illustration below is from the Centipede Press edition which came out in June 2010 at $95. ABE has no copies. Good to see it has an intro by Colin Wilson, the sage of Zennor.

23 December 2010

Cover Art, a discovery...

A fellow dealer has this graphic artist's illustration for a lurid book cover pinned to the wall of his book storage unit. Dealers tend to accumulate book cover art, especially if they have been at it for a few decades. He thinks he may have bought it from someone selling a quantity of book cover illustrations on card (gouache, watercolour etc.,) by the railings on Bayswater Road about 30 years ago. Art (now mostly kitsch and worse) is still sold there every Sunday. Often these pictures have lettering so you can see the title, but not in this case, and no artist had signed either. When these collections turn up they are usually quite large and some of the images are hard to sell or unattractive and thus find very few takers, but this image was well above average.

Recently he called me up to say that he had found the actual book that had used the illustration - in a box of SF, fantasy and horror paperbacks. A mild Eureka moment, celebrated with a cup of PG tips finest. The book was Horror in the Night by Richard Macgregor published by Digit in London in 1963. Not a lot is known about Macgregor, these were 5 short horror stories and he seems to have written 5 other books between 1963 and 1964 for Digit. Titles like The Deadly Sun, Creeping Plague, The Day a Village Died --- a category that came to be known as Doom Watch fiction, possibly post apocalyptic in content. Not much more is known of Macgregor (possibly a pseudonym) --you can buy the five titles available for about £30. A further book Taste of the Temptress came out in Sydney in the mid 1960s published by Eclipse, so he could have been Australian or have turned to porn or both...As for the artist it could be one R.A. Osborne (1923 - 1973) art director of Digit at the time and responsible for many of their covers including Macgregor's Day a Village Died, the story of a village plagued by killer ants.

Such cover art is quite collectable and has a ready audience on Ebay but does not command life or even week changing sums -but this sort of discovery, this matching up, is a rare delight, even at second hand.

20 December 2010

Books by murderers 1

Mary Lamb ( 1764 - 1847 )

Tales from Shakespeare (1807 ) £3,000 +
Mrs Leicester’s School (1809) £2,000 +
Poetry For Children (1809) £1,500 +

The story of how in 1796 the deranged sister of essayist Charles Lamb chased her mother around the kitchen with a knife before plunging it into her has become part of the story of English Literature. Had not brother Charles committed himself to caring for her at home from 1799, she would most likely have died in an asylum. Eight years later the couple wrote Tales from Shakespeare together—Charles dealing with the Tragedies and ( bizarrely) Mary the Comedies. Oddly, only Lamb’s name

appears on the title page. Two further collaborations, Mrs Leicester’s School ( tales ) and Poetry For Children, followed in 1809. Mary had episodes of insanity throughout the rest of her life but survived her more celebrated brother by 13 years, dying in 1847.
Mary’s psychological state and the relationship between brother and sister have been the subjects of a number of academic studies, particularly recently. As a result, interest in Mary’s three co-written books has increased considerably and collectors must expect to pay good prices for firsts of these rare titles—particularly Tales from Shakespeare, whose 20 engraved plates after designs by William Mulready, have been attributed to William Blake.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794 – 1847)

Some Passages in the Life &c of Egomet Bonmot Esq., edited by Mr Mwaughmaim and now first published by ME (London, James Bigg 1825). £200 ++

Regency dandy, art critic and multiple poisoner, Wainewright was a friend of Hazlitt, Lamb and John Clare, and from 1820 to 1823, under the pen names Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot, and Cornelius Van Vinkbooms, regularly contributed articles on art and connoisseurship to the London Magazine. Short of the money needed to finance his exquisite lifestyle, he probably killed his uncle for his estate and almost definitely poisoned his wife’s half-sister and another as part of an insurance scam. He was never tried for these crimes, since only circumstantial evidence could be found. In 1837 he was arrested for a forgery that had earlier netted him £5,000; he pleaded guilty to this offence and was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land, where after serving his time he was released. While a convict he was granted a certain amount of freedom and found favour as an artist of note. He died in Hobart in 1847.

Wainewright was a talented portraitist whose clever sketches are still highly sought after in Tasmania. As a writer on art he was way ahead of his time, prefiguring the aesthetes of the fin de siècle and earning the admiration of Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sketch of him in Pen Paper and Poison. Since then he has become a minor cult figure, attracting no less than three full length biographies ( the most recent being a fantasy novel by the former Pet Laureate Andrew Motion ), a study of his time in Australia and a number of academic papers. In 1880 William Carew Hazlitt edited Essays and Criticisms by T. G. Wainewright, a very hard book to find and a steal at £60 ( I bought my copy for £8 in Wolverhampton many years ago ). But far rarer is the murderer’s only publication --the forty-five page pamphlet Some Passages in the Life &c of Egomet Bonmot—a hymn to himself in rhyming couplets. The booklet is very scarce, but there are copies to be found somewhere. James Bigg was a reputable bookseller in Whitehall and by 1825 Wainewright had become a minor celeb in the literary world, so there is every reason to think that Some Passages…had a decent print run, though in 40 years of searching I’ve never even heard of copies coming up for sale.

Pierre Francois Lacenaire ( 1800 -1836 )

Memoires, Revelations and Poesies, Paris 1836 £500++
Philip John Stead, The Memoirs of Lacenaire, London, Staples Press 1952. $30.
Memoires, Poemes et Lettres, 1968 $20

Like Wainewright, this French dramatist and poet was a thoroughly nasty piece of work –arrogant, egotistical and amoral. An ambitious young writer who dressed like a dandy, he was resentful at the literary success of others he regarded as less gifted than himself, and was determined to live as a libertine on the periphery of polite Parisian society. Late in 1829, after killing a rival in a duel he embarked on an unprofitable life of petty pilfering which led to several short stays in jail interspersed with even briefer periods as a freelance journalist. His criminal career came to a head when he and an accomplice brutally murdered M. Chardon, a well-off fellow criminal, and his mother. Ending up in prison for another crime, he was betrayed by his accomplice, but before being sent for trial was given a private cell where he dashed off the poems and songs that the literary editors had seen fit to reject. In his confession he revealed himself as an unrepentant sociopath:

‘Before killing and after killing, I sleep equally well, and always peacefully. I am about to make an animate being inanimate; that is all. I see a light. I breathe on it, it goes out…’

Before long, like Wainewright, Lacenaire had achieved the notoriety he sought. Gifts and bouquets were sent to his cell. His visitors included scientists, physicians and members of the beau monde – all eager to converse with the cold-blooded killer who wrote poems and songs of love. Retribution eventually came with his conviction for murder and on 9 January 1836 Lacenaire was guillotined before a large crowd. In death he became an exemplar of the romantic who rebelled against bourgeois respectability. Baudelaire idolised him, Dostoevsky based the central figure in Crime and Punishment on him, and his story has been the subject of at least two films.
In 1836 Lacenaire’s scandalous Memoires, Revelations & Poesies appeared in a censored edition, which is now extremely rare and sought after. Doubtless there were later editions too, but not one in French currently features on ABE. [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. This is the first of about three postings and I know you are covering the patricidal Richard Dadd - a great favourite.. I also know that your remit is not to do with murderers who were then encouraged to write books by sensationalist publishers, or mass murderers like Stalin and Hitler. Colin Wilson (among others) had a good theory that some murderers (eg Hitler or the Moonlight Killer aka The Texarkana Phantom) were failed creative artists--Hitler a painter, the Texarkana slayer a failed jazzman. Food for thought from the sage of Zennor...Btw the colour pic above is from the 1990 movie 'Lacenaire' starring Daniel Auteuil.

12 December 2010

The most intelligent man in the world

The works of William Sidis (1898 – 1944 )

William James Sidis, born in Boston in 1898 to Russian émigré Boris, a psychologist and his wife Sarah, a physician, showed astonishing intellectual qualities from an exceptionally early age. By the age of one he had learned to spell in English. He taught himself to type in French and German at four and by the age of six had added Russian, Hebrew Turkish and Armenian to his repertoire. At five he devised a system which could enable him to name the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Hot-housed by his pushy father, Sidis entered Harvard at eleven, and was soon lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to the University’s Maths Society. At twelve he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but recovered at his father’s sanatorium, and after returning to Harvard, graduated with first class honours in 1914, aged just sixteen. Law School followed and by the age of twenty Sidis had become a professor of maths at Texas Rice Institute.

It was then that his troubles began . Looking back at his social gaucheness, hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, it seems very probable that Sidis suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. His good looks didn’t help him and he was teased by his female students, especially when he pronounced publicly that he would never marry and intended to live the rest of his life in seclusion.

With Sidis, as with most freaks of nature, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Take his IQ. It has been assessed at above 250 ( Einstein’s is reckoned at around 168), whereas modern psychologists insist that IQs over 170 cannot be measured. I read somewhere that he could learn a new language in a day and it has been reported that he was familiar with 200 languages. This seems unlikely. The popular image of him as reclusive comptometer operator whose main hobby was collecting tram transfers—is a travesty of the truth. Only in recent years has the true extent of Sidis’s genius emerged. Far from wasting his life in menial jobs, nerdy hobbies, and idle speculation, Sidis was a prolific writer, who at his death aged just 46 of a cranial haemorrhage, left behind a catalogue of significant contributions to cosmology , applied maths, transport system theory, anthropology and linguistics—all of which suggest that he had a wider intellectual range than did Leonardo.

Some projects remained in manuscript form at his death, including a grammar and an artificial language (Vendergood), but Sidis published four substantial books, many newspaper articles, papers in journals and typewritten newsletters. And it seems there are even ‘ important ‘ collectors of Sidisiana, ‘ three in America and two in Europe , all quite bright and some quite young ‘, according to the American dealer Jay Dillon, an acknowledged specialist in the field.

But there are problems for any collector starting out. All but one of the four books are pseudonymous. For instance, his debut, Passaconaway in the White Mountains, a scholarly work on Native American history, appeared in 1916 under the pseudonym William Edward Beals Jr. Jay Dillon reports that this ‘ uncommon ‘ book went for $305 on E bay minus its jacket and he himself is asking a tentative $1,400 for a jacketed copy (‘practically unheard of ‘, says Dillon).

His second published book and his undoubted masterpiece, The Animate and the Inanimate, which is credited to ‘ William James Sidis ‘ was the first of the three works published by Dorrance, a leading ‘ vanity press ‘in Philadelphia. In this disquisition on cosmology, an abiding interest since childhood, he theorised about the existence of positive and negative sections of space and suggested that:
‘ what little radiant energy would be produced in the negative section of space would be pseudo-teleologically directed only towards stars which have enough activity to absorb it, and no radiant energy, or almost none, would actually leave the negative section of space…’

Sounds familiar ? Sidis was just 27 when he predicted the existence of what we now know as ‘ black holes’. According to Maggs, who sold a copy inscribed to Dr Percival Gerson not too long ago for £5,000 ( it would be nice to know if Stephen Hawking bought it ) only nine copies are known to exist. Dillon admits to having sold four copies since 2001.

In total contrast Sidis, a year later, brought out a more personal magnum opus. Notes on the Collection of Transfers, by ’Frank Folupa’ was a misnomer if there ever was one, since this is no dull Shire Guide type booklet of recycled hobbyist guff, but a work of Ph D quality and length in which not a single aspect of the subject is neglected. The style of the writing and the almost obsessive factual detail is characteristic of someone with AS. Most memorable is the description of how frozen transfers might be rescued from impacted ice and restored.

Sidis’ last published book was another considerable contribution to transportation systems research. In 1936 his Collisions in Street and Highway appeared under the name of Barry Mulligan . This was an accomplished, highly detailed analysis comprising 332 ‘ topics ‘which thanks to the author’s penetrating mind, are far from being dull reading. A copy with dust jacket of this scarce and sought after title would set you back at least $1,000.

Although he was to publish no more books Sidis spent the rest of his life adding to his epic The Tribes and the States, a history of the relationship between the colonial States and the Native Americans, which lay unfinished at his early death. Since then it has been edited and published in paperback and copies are easily available online for around $20.


[Thanks Robin for adding this info to the world. The explorer and writer Richard Burton is said to have learned 25 languages and forty dialects, but Sidis seems to have been in another league. That's William, above, as a boy. Competence in many languages is not all that rare and does not always indicate genius but lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to a university society while still in short trousers is the clincher... There is a good book on Sidis by Amy Wallace called 'The Prodigy' (1986) Among other stories it recounts that after a prepared talk at Harvard age 14 , when the audience applauded William turned from the podium and broke into hysterical giggles. Am now actively looking out for stuff by this many named genius.]

08 December 2010

Autograph anecdotes 4

Let's not even talk about forgery. To my mind the 'blink' test is a good start in testing for authenticity. If on very first seeing it the autograph doesn't feel right don't touch it. As Malcolm Gladwell details in over 300 pages of his book Blink. The Power of Thinking Without Thinking the unconscious mind often delivers a better answer than more deliberate and protracted ways of thinking. If the seller doesn't pass the blink test either, drop it like a hot brick. Kenneth Rendell, purveyor of manuscripts to the great and the good, advises avoiding the kind of dealer who brushes you off when probed, he adds: "The real expert will bore you with answers." I also like what he says about how forgers often fail to get the feel of a signature right -the "flying starts and endings of the pen".

Avoid signatures that look more like a drawing than writing and ones that seem to have stops and starts. Also signatures in cheap editions of books can be suspect, most forgers will not risk screwing up a signature in a four figure book. Forgers often stick to a plain signature so a date or sentiment is useful (belying the tiresome 'flat signed' schtick.) Also beware the desirable signature that is seriously underpriced, you may be lucky but it is often a sign of a grifter at work. If it is very cheap, of course, it may be real but unrated or unrecognised. Age is no guarantee of authenticity, forgers have been around since Heraclitus stood in the river. Ebay is a minefield. Bad Salinger forgeries appeared there after the writer's death and usually made a few hundred dollars. Like the curate's egg they were 'good in parts' but if it is wrong it's worthless, if it's right it's a few thousand. In one of the signatures Salinger appeared to have misspelled his own name...

Salinger was of course a notoriously difficult and elusive signer and Thomas Pynchon is even more difficult. We considered who were the most common signers - but who are the most difficult? People like Joyce, Fleming, Tolkien are very valuable but they did sign quite a bit. Kafka isn't easy, the cult writer Richard Powers signs absolutely nothing, even an acquisitve and well funded collector like the artist Richard Prince lacks a signed Powers book in his modern literature collection. I have only seen one Alan Turing signature (in a computer manual.) Does Steve Jobs give out his autograph or Roman Abramovich? Highbrow writers tend to sign less than airport writers. There was a dealer around earlier this century who dealt in signed books by fearsome intellectuals--mostly European- guys like Derrida, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Godel, Cioran, Habermas, Wittgenstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Barthes, Perec, Walter Benjamin, etc.,. It always seemed an odd model for a business because the potential collector for these is likely to be someone with contempt for autograph collecting.

Difficult signers? In the celebrity world Marlon Brando was said to be a very reluctant signer, Bob Dylan is fairly unapproachable, Metallica are snotty types, Madonna is too important to sign anything but a contract and from the sublime to the ridiculous our own Sherriff of Nottingham Alan Rickman is known to forcibly repel advances from auto-hounds. Online research reveals the sad story of a collector who had to wait 28 years for the signature of Sultan of Brunei. There are also pointers as to favourite restaurants used by stars for signature hunters to hang about outside. That explains the motley crew one sees outside 'The Ivy' in the street behind the bookshop. One thing you hear all the time is the reluctance of stars to sign autographs for dealers and resellers. Some dealers have to use their children to get autographs. A good approach might be to be up front about it -'Can I have your autograph, I want to put it on Ebay tonight? Frankly I'm broke...'

01 December 2010

Rare manuscripts and where they are found

A cellar

The score of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, missing for 100 years and presumed lost, was discovered in a Swiss cellar in 2004. The music critic of the Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris, an expert on the composer, was contacted by a mysterious man who invited him to conform that the manuscript was genuine. When the two men met at a Swiss railway station, Norris noticed that his companion was carrying a Co-Op plastic bag. This turned out to contain the 300 page missing score which the composer’s had covered with his scribblings.
Widely regarded as Rachmaninov’s most popular orchestral work, the score of his second symphony, written in 1907, was due to be sold at Sotheby’s sale of 7 December with an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000 but the lot was withdrawn at the last minute, the result of an ownership dispute between the vendor and the Rachmaninov estate. Legal wranglings were still going on in 2006.

Peat Bog

An eighth-century Latin manuscript containing all 150 of the Book of Psalms was unearthed in the summer of 2006 at Faddan More, Tipperary, by a local workman, Mr Eddie Fogarty, who was operating a mechanical digger.
According to Patrick Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland the sixty page vellum ‘ book ‘ was ‘ more important for Ireland than the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been for biblical scholars ‘.
Apparently, according to the conservator assigned to the task of preserving what was left of the document, vellum shouldn’t survive in such conditions, ‘ it should gelatinize away ‘. The Faddan More Psalter, as it now known, will go on display in 2011.

Book binding

A scrap from a printer’s MS account book which confirmed the chronology of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost was found glued inside the spine binding of a seventeenth century book by eccentric dealer and incunabula collector Solomon Pottesman. Pottesman, known for his hard-dealing, could have sold the fragment for hundreds of pounds but chose instead to let it go for next to nothing to an impoverished scholar, a specialist in Jacobean drama.


Robert Falcon’s Scott’s plans regarding the South Pole expedition

Eleven pages of handwritten notes for a lecture Captain Robert F. Scott gave to his team of explorers before they set off for the South Pole in 1912 were discovered in a London bookshop. Thought to be lost forever, the handsomely bound pages, were acquired by Canterbury Museum, NZ. where they were exhibited along with other Antarctica.

Thomas Traherne’s Poems

One of the most exciting literary discoveries in the twentieth century relates to Thomas Traherne (1637- 74 ), who until 1903 was known as the author of two obscure books, Roman Forgeries and Christian Ethicks. For some time his remains had been in the hands of a family named Skipp from Herefordshire, which still owned them in 1888. Then, for some reason, the family chose to dispose of the papers and by 1896/7 two manuscripts had ended up in a ‘ street bookstall ‘ from where the literary collector William T. Brooke rescued them for ‘ a few pence ‘. After studying the style of the poems Brooke concluded that they were the work of the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan and he communicated his discovery to another collector, Dr Grosart, who bought them from him as a curiosity. He too was so convinced that the author was Vaughan that he set about preparing a new edition of the poet’s works which would include the newly discovered compositions. Unfortunately, Grosart died before a publisher could be found and the two volumes were then sold with the rest of his library to the bookseller Charles Higham of Farringdon Street, who sold them on to the Charing Cross Road publisher and bookseller Bertram Dobell. Not long afterwards, Dobell acquired a third manuscript volume, when another part of Grosart ‘s library was sold at Sotheby’s. Dobell now had one folio volume and two octavos.

Dobell too was at first disposed to believe that the poems were Vaughan’s work, but in comparing the latter’s printed compositions with the poems in manuscript, came to the conclusion that stylistic differences militated against this attribution. After further research Dobell was able to identify the mystery poet as the little known divine Thomas Traherne.
Dobell published Traherne’s poems to great acclaim in 1903. A prose work, Centuries of Meditation, also edited from the manuscripts, appeared in 1908. Traherne is now recognised as one of the major metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century.

Thomas More’s A Dialoge of Comfort Agaynst Trybulacion

Bewick expert and book collector Nigel Tattersfield found a scribal copy of More’s famous Dialoge of Comfort Agaynst Trybulacion while fishing through boxes of books in the stalls of George Jeffery at Farringdon Road in1981. The original manuscript had been composed by More while in jail awaiting trial for treason and the copy may have been made by a visitor to the jail in case the original was confiscated by the authorities. How this copy found itself bound centuries later in a dull Victorian cloth no-one will probably ever know, but Tattersfield, who bought it for £20, was doubtless delighted that its significance had been thus disguised from all but himself. A few years later it was sold for £42,000 and Tattersfield bought a house with the money.
[R.M. Healey]

Much thanks for this posting Robin. Such stories spur us on to make the great discovery, hit the jackpot and live the life described by Riley. As Scott F put it '...no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—'

Hemingway lost a suitcase filled with his manuscripts at the Gare de Lyon in December 1922. T.E. Lawrence lost the manuscript of 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' while changing trains at Reading railway station in December 1919. It was in a briefcase--actually a bank messenger’s bag. Both Hem's and TE's manuscripts probably fell into the hands of petty thieves and were trashed as being worthless…but they may still be out there.

Addendum. By the way Wikipedia at their 'Love's Labour's Won' entry has this '...one Solomon Pottesman, a London based antiquarian book dealer and collector, discovered the August 1603 book list of the stationer Christopher Hunt, which lists as printed in quarto: "marchant of vennis, taming of a shrew, ... loves labor lost, loves labor won." The find provided evidence that the play was in fact a unique work that had been published but lost and not an early title of The Taming of the Shrew.'