Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Victorian Fun (2)

Well, no matter how long you've known them, your friends never lose the capacity to surprise you. Jo Armitage, with whom I worked back when I was represented by the Curtis Brown Agency, read my last entry on the British Library's Victorian Entertainments exhibition and wrote:
Well I never, just read the blog about your visit to the BL. Can’t remember if I’ve ever told you but my great grandparents (paternal side – Armitage) were a part of the George Sangers Circus. I believe that my great grandfather Armitage was a Ringmaster for them. Small world and when they left the circus he became the Manager for one of the Music Halls in SW London (think Clapham but not sure).
In dire need of some diversion on this election-dominated morning, I flipped through Sanger's autobiography Seventy Years a Showman and spent some time down the wonderful rabbit-hole of information that is the Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History site. If the Clapham association is correct, then it's quite possible that Grandpere Armitage may have been involved with Dan Leno's ventures in the area. Leno lived in nearby Clapham Park and was a partner in a business consortium that first took over Munt's Hall on St John's Hill, renaming it The Grand Hall of Varieties before going on to commission and build Clapham Junction's Grand Theatre. I turned up nothing useful that I could add to the family story, but was grateful for the excuse to go browsing.

When I asked Jo for permission to pass this along she added that the Ringmaster story came from relatives who are no longer around, so she'd no immediate means of corroborating it. But that her great grandfather worked for Sanger, and met and married her great grandmother while both were in the showman's employ, is beyond doubt.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Victorian Fun

In London for a couple of meetings last Thursday, I called by to spend a few minutes at the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. That's the beauty of our free museums, as I found in the 70s when I was in the capital looking for a way into film or TV; when you're broke (as I was then) and have time to fill, a regular half-hour in the National Gallery or the odd hour in the V&A can lift the spirits and leave you with a sense of the time well spent.

A chap was tuning up a piano. Not something you expect to find in the foyer of a library. When I took a closer look I saw that a stage was being set for the launch of a new exhibition titled Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun. The barriers were still up but I could see enough to know right away that I'd surely find it of interest.

As described on the BL's own website:
Roll up to celebrate some of the most popular entertainments of Victorian times performed in a variety of venues from fairground tents to musical stages. 

Focusing on five colourful characters, follow their stories as we bring the worlds they inhabited to life. These Victorian A-listers include Dan Leno, the original pantomime dame and ‘funniest man on earth’, John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and manager of ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, and the great circus showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Also hear of those whose fame has now faded such as Annie De Montford, a mill worker turned mesmerist, and Evanion the Royal conjuror

If you're familiar with the Becker novels you'll know that they largely play out against a backdrop of the entertainment business from the 1880s to the Edwardian era. From Music Hall touring companies to fairground boxing booths, from Wild West acts to the legitimate stage. And if you aren't familiar... well, you'll have to take my word for it. 

Two of the personalities covered in the exhibition (and the live presentations scheduled to accompany it) were central to the stories' conception, with their lives and histories providing a wealth of insight and detail. 'Lord' George Sanger was a prominent showman, and John Nevile Maskelyne was probably the most eminent British illusionist of his day. Here's where Maskelyne - in spirit, rather than in person - figures in The Kingdom of Bones
The Egyptian Hall stood in Piccadilly, and had been England's Home of Mystery for the past sixteen years. It had the frontage of an antique temple, four storeys high and with the look of something hewn from the rock of the Nile valley. Two mighty columns braced the lintel above its entranceway. Two monumental statues stood upon the lintel. All illusion, in plaster and cement. To either side of this slab of the ancient desert continued a row of sober Georgian town houses. 

Within the building there were two theatres. One had been taken by Maskelyne and Cooke for a three-month run of magic and deception that still showed no signs of ending, more than a decade and a half after it had begun. The other was used for exhibitions and the occasional show. 

A few minutes before midnight, their four-wheeler drew up outside. Edmund Whitlock stepped down to the pavement, where he turned and offered his arm to Louise.
To an observer’s eye the halls were shut-up and dark, but a watchman waited to let them in. Louise moved with her eyes downcast, looking neither to left nor right. They went directly backstage, where the Silent Man waited to lead them to the auditorium. 

It was an intimate house, with a small stage and a runway out from the footlights across the orchestra pit. The house lights were on and the curtains were up; Maskelyne was between shows, so his sets were half-struck and the theatre’s back wall was visible. About a dozen figures were out there in the stalls, all male, no two of them sitting together although some were conversing across the rows in raised voices. They fell silent as Whitlock led Louise to the centre of the stage, where a chair waited. He left her there and moved to the footlights. 

“Gentlemen,” he said, his voice ringing all the way up to the hall’s domed ceiling. “Welcome. I have spoken to each of you in turn before this evening.” 

Louise sat on her chair and continued to look down at the stage. Whitlock had taken her to Bond Street the day before, to be fitted for a new dress that the milliners had run up overnight. Her hair had been artfully pinned by the Mute Woman, who had a talent for such. Her face was powdered and her natural pallor relieved by the merest hint of rouge. 

Over by the wings, she was aware of the Silent Man easing out of the shadows and into a spot from where he could observe the auditorium. 

“I know you are intrigued,” Whitlock said. “I know you will be discreet. And I know the fascination that Miss Porter holds for each of you. Tonight I offer the chance for one man to pursue that fascination to the full.” 
I stayed on an extra day in order to return when I knew the exhibition would be open. It's sited in the BL's entrance hall and isn't huge - several display cases and some video material, along with walls of vintage poster art - but for someone with a love of such ephemera it didn't disappoint.

There are some props and personal effects but it's mostly printed matter in the form of handbills, tickets, programmes and other publications, much as you'd expect from a library's archive. Most interesting to me was the material from the collection of Henry Evans, illusionist, who as 'Evanion' had a fifty-year touring career on the stages of Britain. Presented here as 'one of those whose fame has now faded', to me Evans represents the true heroes of popular entertainment, hard-grafting professionals with a lifelong commitment to their often thankless trade. He was to die, elderly and impoverished, of throat cancer in the Lambeth Infirmary, a charity hospital joined to the workhouse in which Charlie Chaplin had been a child inmate. Forgotten, perhaps. But faded? No.

Afterwards I looked in the gift shop, and was a tad discouraged to see no merchandise in the exhibition-related area. Just Shakespeare stuff and, let's face it, he hardly needs the publicity. The main part of the bookshop offers a nice line in vintage detective fiction, all rather well-chosen, some of it in retro bindings, and with some rare old titles republished under the BL's own imprint (and kudos to whoever came up with the idea of returning the great Eric Ambler to public attention).

But hey, BL, if you'd care to stock some titles that can relate to the show, I've a suggestion or three for you.

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, Entrance Hall, The British Library, until Sunday, 12th February 2017

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Spotted in the Wild

Just back from a weekend of frolics, wine and conversation at 2016's Fantasycon by the Sea in Scarborough, a town of shabby-chic Edwardian charm with a fantastic coastline and some, er, interesting after-dark streetlife. The Grand Hotel made for a highly sociable venue in a spectacular clifftop location. Dining options on the doorstep, and some fine autumn sunshine for those moments where you just had to take time out and wander. I had a great time meeting up with friends old and new.

There was no single dealers' room, as such, more a bazaar that spilled through small rooms and passageways off a corner of the main hall. I'm pretty sure I didn't get to see everything, but I did get my first-ever sighting of the new hardcover in its finished form. PS Publishing regularly handles UK distribution of Subterranean titles and had rushed a stack of advance copies expressly for the convention. So, many thanks to all involved, with further thanks to those who bought out the stack!

A damn handsome piece of book production, if you ask me. I couldn't be more pleased. The hardcover editions of both The Kingdom of Bones (Shaye Areheart Books) and The Bedlam Detective (Crown) were something to behold, and this new title equals and, dare I say it, surpasses them. Subterranean also holds ebook rights for US territories, details of which can be found here. I'll have paperback news in due course.

Monday, 11 July 2016

New Readers Start Here!

The Kingdom of Bones, Stephen Gallagher, Shaye Areheart Books, New York, 368 pp, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-307-38280-1.

Set primarily in the England of the 1880s but also in 1903 Philadelphia and New Orleans, Stephen Gallagher’s The Kingdom of Bones is part murder mystery, part occult thriller, and part loving re-creation of a bygone era.  Someone has been killing poor children, and Detective Inspector Sebastian Becker believes ex-boxing champion Tom Sayers has something to do with the slayings.  After an understated opening, the novel kicks into high gear when Sayers escapes arrest and tries to clear his name by finding the real killer. In a move by Gallagher that will delight genre fans, Sayers enlists the help of Bram Stoker. This leads Sayers into a world of possible occult influence and secrets that will change his life forever.  Throughout the novel, Gallagher’s careful, restrained writing creates great tension and surprise.  Sebastian as the pursuing detective is convincing, but Gallagher’s careful, often brilliant characterization of Sayers is The Kingdom of Bones’ main touchstone.

(Review, Realms of Fantasy magazine)

Monday, 27 June 2016

Flash Sale! Half Off Preorders!

Until close of business on Tuesday, June 28th (that's tomorrow at the time of posting), Subterranean Press are (is?) running a half-off sale on preorders including The Authentic William James.

The Subterranean edition is limited to 1,000 signed and numbered copies at a list price of $40.00. Until the sale ends tomorrow that's cut to $20.00.

Other titles in the sale include China Mieville's This Census-Taker, and Robert Silverberg's Early Days.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Working Methods of Bram Stoker

British film and TV indie Zenith Productions took an option on The Kingdom of Bones ahead of publication, and financed its development under the title Victorian Gothic.

When Zenith went bust, the BBC's Drama department took over development. After a year of collaborative work they put the completed scripts before the BBC1 Controller as a so-called 'flagship' production for the coming season.

The then-Controller was a former producer from BBC Sport. After six months an exasperated Head of Drama spoke of repeated attempts to get a response of any kind out of him; after which the option expired and the rights came back to me.

But along the way, I'd been supported in a terrific program of travel and research, following the progress of the Lyceum Company's 1903 American tour, scouting locations and accumulating historical texture. As well as taking notes, every night I'd tape a summary of the day's findings and observations for later transcription and use.

A Twitter question from author and critic Anne Billson caused me to delve into the notes again. It concerned the dust jacket, or lack of one, on the first edition of Dracula.

I knew I'd seen a dustjacketed copy among Bram Stoker's working papers in Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum. Some of the observations from that day seemed worth repeating.


I've spent the large part of today in the Rosenbach Museum consulting not only the collection of working papers for DRACULA, but also taking a look at the two first editions of the books that they have in their collection. The catalogue also listed some Lyceum-related related correspondence, which turned out to be of no direct value. But the two first editions were interesting, and I made a point of measuring the dimensions of the book and also taking fairly detailed notes of the jacket design in case we don't have any other reference material to recreate the first edition in facsimile. They had two copies, one fine with a crumbling dust jacket, and the other jacketless and in not such good condition. But what was so interesting about the second book was that that was the inscribed copy given by Stoker to Lord Tennyson. This must presumably have been Hallam Tennyson, son of the poet, as the laureate died in 1892 and the inscription was dated 1897. I couldn't help noticing as I flicked through it that in at least one place the pages hadn't been cut, so it would seem that Stoker presented it to Tennyson, and Tennyson never read it.
(I can't check because the notes are now archived along with my own working papers at my old University, but my recall is that the dust jacket carried the same design as the printed boards underneath. The paper was a buff colour that may have faded from its original shade)
It's clear from the papers that Stoker had a working method which I find very recognisable. He wrote structurally at first, in extremely small handwriting so that you could take in as much as possible at a glance. When he'd worked out his chapter structure, he did a little calculation on the wordage to get some estimate of what his final length was going to be if he were to average 6,000 words per chapter. Then he started expanding, allocating a different sheet of paper to each chapter, with a jotted summary of notes on each. Then his research took two forms; one was background research in which he derived notes from books and also interviews, like the interview with the coastguard at Whitby where he apparently persuaded the man to transcribe the incident of the Russian boatwreck from the coastguard's log. This became the foundation for the wreck of the Demeter in the book. He persuaded him to transcribe it in his own hand, and the transcription was appended in the file. Stoker made location atmosphere notes, like a set of jottings from Whitby where he noted the weather and the view, and the fact that from the top of the cliff he could see two brass bands playing, one on the pier and one in the town. Neither could be heard by the other, but both could be heard from above.

Also recognisable in technique was the single pencil stroke that went through each of the different chapter summaries, or individual quotes or thoughts or concepts which, at a guess, he struck out of his notes as he used them in the manuscript so that he wouldn't fall into the trap of reusing them later on.

One can actually see on one of the small pages the point at which the book changed, or at least the character changed, from the original generalised evil figure to the specific of Count Dracula, because on the list of dramatis personae he's listed as Count Wampyr, which is crossed out, and then the word `Dracula' put in its place, and then the name `Dracula' or `Count Dracula' appears again on the page at least three times, written in the corners as if Stoker was playing with it and repeating it, and getting comfortable with it at a very late stage. In subsequent notes, where he's writing structurally, he lapses in a couple of places, and writes `Count Wampyr', immediately striking it out and putting in the name of Dracula. And then after the first half dozen lines or so, he settles into the steady use of `Dracula' with no need for amendments.

There are some interesting clues and images that never got included in the final book which, given that we're looking for Ur-Dracula material, it would be nice to draw upon and include. These include the two servants, the silent man and the deaf-mute woman, that Dracula was originally given, and which correspond very closely to the existing VICTORIAN GOTHIC idea of the two acolytes that transfer their allegiance to whoever holds the title. There's a detective named Cotwood, and there are several references to a charred and bloodied secret chamber somewhere in Dracula's London house, which would correspond interestingly to the notion of a similar chamber that (in my own story) Louise maintains in America.

Stoker had a very strict schedule for the events of the book, as can be seen by the fact that he had a complete set of pages taken from a desk diary which he dated and then mapped out the various events on, taking into account all travel times, and even the times it would take for letters to travel from one place to another.

One of the items in the file betrays the place that Stoker stayed on a touring visit to Philadelphia, because he used notepaper from the Stratford Hotel. The address given for the Stratford Hotel is on the south west corner of Broad and Walnut Streets. That site appears today to be occupied by the Bellevue Hotel, and in the postcard photographs of the time, and also in the Shackleton book on old Philadelphia, and in the endpapers of the Lukacs book where sheep are being seen driven down Broad Street. . . in all of those pictures and by the map, the Stratford would appear to be what is presently the Bellevue Hotel. But the one picture of the Stratford Hotel frontage clearly showing its canopy and sign fails to correspond with the architecture.

Just going back to the diary schedule for a moment, something that never made it into the book, but which Stoker clearly planned to include before he revamped and cut the preamble and shortened the opening, was that as part of his journey from Britain to what was then marked in as Styria, and which later became Transylvania, Jonathan Harker was intended on April 30th to attend a performance of Wagner's opera of The Flying Dutchman, probably in Munich, possibly in Vienna, as there's some discontinuity in the datings from the end of April to the beginning of May. And this, even if it isn't of practical use, is an encouraging revelation of the extent to which the Dutchman and related legends powered the imaginative drive of Dracula.

The typed background research notes are curious. They're in strange blue ink on two different kinds of paper, one very thin and the other heavy-duty watermarked paper. There are gaps in these, into which handwritten insertions of the missing words have been placed. What's curious about these only emerges when you combine it with the fact that there are some errors in the typing that can only be phonetic - the substitution of `finding' for `fining', for example - which would seem to suggest that the typing was done from dictation. But if it was done live from dictation, then why the gaps? One would simply ask for repetition. Shorthand seems an unlikely option for the same reason. Why would it be copy typed from handwriting when nothing else was? (Christopher) Frayling has suggested that they were typed up for later sale, but these have the look of notes made for use; they carry handwritten additions and amendments. One possible option that suggests itself, for which I'm not aware of there being any other evidence, is that perhaps Stoker was using a very early dictation machine, exactly in the manner that he describes in the diary entries of Dr Seward.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Now Ordering

The cell door swung open, and for the first time Sebastian found himself facing William James.

Arsonist. Mass murderer. Madman.

The cell's only furniture was a wooden cot at its far end. A thin grey blanket covered it. William James sat on the edge of the cot, shackled at the ankles, elbows on his knees, head bowed. Both hands and forearms were so heavily bandaged that they more resembled blunted clubs than human limbs. He didn't look up or show any reaction as Sebastian entered. The cell door was slammed and relocked behind him.

Sebastian waited a moment. Then he said, "William James? My name is Sebastian Becker. Do you know where you are?"


Had he even heard? The prisoner was not in a good state. He had a waistcoat but no jacket, and his shirt collar was missing. The waistcoat was buttoned, his shirt sleeves ripped to the elbow.

"Do you know where you are?" Sebastian repeated.

Slowly, William James looked up.

The face was blank; not especially handsome, not memorable, nor unpleasant. The face of a clerk, a father, an average man. The eyes held on Sebastian with a dazed expression. Was he rational? The lack of any spark might be a temporary result of shock at the consequences of his deed. It could also be a sign of some deeper mental detachment.

Sebastian was about to repeat his question yet again when William James nodded, slowly.

"Say it," Sebastian insisted.

"I'm in a police station."

"Do you know why?"

But James seemed to gain some further measure of awareness, as if Sebastian had just now awakened him from a sleep and his memories were falling back into place.

He said, "Is my daughter safe?"

"I don’t have any information on that. Someone will tell you when they know."

"When I ask," William James said, "they laugh and abuse me."

Sebastian was watching him closely. Though he worked for a psychiatrist, he made no pretence of being one. He was here to report evidence of madness, not to attempt to diagnose it. That was for others to determine, just as courts would decide the man's guilt.

Sebastian said, "They believe you set the fire in the theatre. Are they right? Did you?"

William James met his gaze. "I don’t know," he said.

"Can’t you remember?"

It seemed not. "If you say I did it, perhaps I did."

"That’s not how this works. I have to assess your state of mind."

"Are you a doctor?"


William James held up his bandaged hands. The strips of linen were soiled and stained. Not with blood, but with the clear fluid of weeping burns. The attention they'd received was rudimentary, and he'd been imprisoned like this for hours. Sebastian winced inwardly at the thought of the skin underneath.

"My hands hurt," James said.

"You should be in a hospital. They couldn’t risk taking you through the crowds. Do you understand why?"

"They want to kill me."

"Quite possibly."

William James looked up at him again.

"You should let them," he said.

The Authentic William James will be published on September 30th, 2016, in a hardcover edition of 1,000 signed and numbered copies. Available worldwide. Click here to preorder.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Signature Pages

I'm taking a break from signing pages for the limited edition. A thousand copies. The only way to get it done is to pace yourself.

All signatures are made in sepia ink with a handmade Bortoletti dip pen, using either a Murano glass tip or a reconditioned vintage steel nib. It's given me a healthy respect for old-style penmanship, which this - I fear - is not.

But while I don't have the best hand in the world I'm making an effort to ensure that every signature will be recognisable to some degree, if not entirely legible. There's a notion among some writers that any kind of mark on a book will do. My feeling is that if a reader's making the extra outlay, then they're due the value.

So it's taking a little while, fitting it in around everything else. But the end's in sight.