These two books will lead you down a rabbit hole to unexpected literary delights

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – For some time now, my favourite essayist has been an English writer named Mark Valentine. In fact, the now antiquated term “bookman” more aptly describes the multitalented Valentine. Besides essays, he also writes elegantly eerie or criminous short stories, some about an occult investigator known as the Connoisseur; he’s produced the single best monograph on the mystical Welsh man of letters Arthur Machen; and he oversees the journal Wormwood: Literature of the Fantastic, Supernatural and Decadent.

Book collecting, though, lies at the centre of Valentine’s life. A literary prospector, he unearths curious and eccentric novels, delves into the careers of half-forgotten authors, and spends holidays making serendipitous discoveries in out-of-the-way provincial bookshops.

A Wild Tumultory Library – the title derives from a phrase by Thomas De Quincey – chronicles some of those discoveries and is just as enthralling as its predecessors, Haunted by Books and A Country Still All Mystery. Against all reason, I devoured this latest collection in one night, unable to stop myself. Actually, that’s not quite true. I did pause occasionally to search online for some of the titles Valentines writes about so infectiously.

Fortunately for my pocketbook, I already owned Rex Warner’s allegorical thrillers The Wild Goose Chase and The Aerodrome, the collected stories of A E Coppard and L P Hartley (the latter best known for the opening sentence of his novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”), Edwin Greenwood’s gallows-humored shocker The Deadly Dowager, and Philip MacDonald’s brilliant first mystery, The Rasp. Because of the Internet, first editions of these books are just a click away, but Valentine spent 30 years searching dusty shops for Lord Kilmarnock’s ghostly novel, Ferelith. The 1903 first remains scarce, but there’s now a Valentine-introduced Nodens Press paperback. But how, you may wonder, do the essays in A Wild Tumultory Library work their bibliophilic magic? Say that Valentine hears about a curious-sounding book, perhaps The Hours and the Centuries by Peter de Mendelssohn.

“I remember my delight,” he writes, “when I at last found a copy in a Suffolk cottage bookshop” and “at a very modest price”. The novel, he continues, “is set in France, in a decaying clifftop city, to which inhabitants from many ages seem to return, for it is a sort of time-slip story. But what matters most is the unusual atmosphere of the book. I have found other copies since and given them to friends, and all are agreed about that peculiar tone of the book, which I can best describe by saying it is like the days when summer slowly gives way to autumn.” After that last phrase, how could anyone not want to read The Hours and the Centuries?

While Mark Valentine has brought out a shelf’s worth of supernaturally inflected fiction and nonfiction, TED Klein is best known for a mere five stories and a single novel published more than 30 years ago. In 1977, The Events at Poroth Farm won the first World Fantasy Award for short story and was later expanded into the blockbuster 1984 novel, The Ceremonies. Even now, just the titles of the four novellas in Dark Gods (1985) elicits memories of fear and pleasure: Children of the Kingdom, Petey, Black Man With a Horn and Nadelman’s God.

After the 1980s Klein largely stopped producing – or at least publishing – fiction, but Providence After Dark and Other Writings reminds us that he’s also been one of the horror genre’s most insightful critics. This huge volume of almost 600 pages contains reflections on H P Lovecraft and his circle, appreciations of Arthur Machen, Ramsey Campbell and Lord Dunsany, lots of movie and book reviews, several writer-at-work conversations, and the columns Klein dashed off during his fabled tenure as editor of Twilight Zone magazine.

He naturally reprints his celebrated list of The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories, opening with MR James’ Casting the Runes and closing with two honorable-mention novellas, Sarban’s Ringstones and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.

Because Klein possesses such an engaging personal voice, he’s fun to read on just about anything. However, the two most substantial pieces here are Dr Van Helsing’s Handy Guide to Ghost Stories and Horrors!: An Introduction to Writing Horror Fiction. The first presents a concise historical survey of supernatural literature, complemented by reflections on why we enjoy “fearful pleasures”. The latter includes sound advice for would-be genre authors – “You must ask yourself at each point in the story, How much does the reader know? How much does he suspect? What will catch him by surprise?” – and it ends with another useful Klein list: The 21 Most Familiar Horror Plots.

In one overused plot gimmick, appropriated from Ambrose Bierce, the story’s protagonist discovers that he or she’s been dead all along. In another, the attractive pickup in a bar turns out to be, in Klein’s words, “a vampire, werewolf, alien, squid, giant spider, gelatinous mass – all the things we’ve always feared in a one-night stand.” Far better, of course, to spend the night with one or – go really wild! – both of these highly entertaining collections.