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A Dreamer’s Tale

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Resolutions for the new year

By Michael Dirda


 

For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past. My father would often intone on significant birthdays or anniversaries: “That which I did I ought not to have done, that which I did not do I ought to have done.” His pseudo-biblical lament unfortunately reduces the past to one long series of regrets, to the memory of foolish choices and rosy thoughts about what might have been.

That way, I suspect, madness lies. Also, the ire of one’s spouse and children—What about us? they might rightly complain. Are we chopped liver or something? After all, people do make good choices, often very good choices. But in recollection we inevitably tend to think about those mysterious and alluring roads not taken. Could I have become a novelist or a poet? Would I have loved living in New York or San Francisco? Might I have been happier as a small-town librarian—or a plumber? Did I use my small talents in the best possible way? Such dreamy speculations are, happily, of no real consequence. They make us thoughtful for a moment; then we sigh and get on with the day’s work. To those who do what lies within them, according to nominalist theology, God will not deny grace.

Like most people, at the beginning of a new year, I get revved up about what I want to accomplish in the coming 12 months. In 2013 I resolve to go to the gym every other day. I will lose 15 pounds and get back into what a friend used to call, when she was looking for a fresh boyfriend, “fighting trim.” I will write a short story and start a new book. I will travel more and see the world. I will fix up this dilapidated house, or sell it, and make a proper library for myself. I will … I resolve to … I must …

Some of these high-minded resolutions will almost certainly come to pass. (Hmm, I must be channeling my father’s biblical rhetoric.) But what I really want to do, if I were to follow my bliss, as Joseph Campbell used to counsel us, is simultaneously modest and fanciful: to travel around North America in a van visiting second-hand bookstores. During my travels I’d also make occasional detours to spend a day or two with old friends, now too little seen—with my high school buddies who live in Houston and Missouri, my college chums in Maine and Chicago, my former book-collecting partner David Streitfeld, ensconced in the Bay Area, even some folks up in Toronto and British Columbia. Being a hero (and heroine) worshipper, I’d naturally take the time to genuflect at the final resting places of writers I admire. (Even now, two of my favorite photographs depict a reverent me at the tomb of Stendhal in Paris and the grave of Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi.) Come lunchtime I would obviously eat in diners and always order pie for dessert, sometimes à la mode. During the evenings, sipping a local beer in some one-night cheap motel, I would examine the purchases of the day and fall asleep reading shabby, half-forgotten books.

Why would anyone want to do this? Mainly for the adventure, to recapture a little of the swagger and inexpressible sense of freedom that belong only to youth. It’s certainly not as though I need any more books. Just yesterday I was up in the attic creating neat stacks of those I would like to read Right Now. While admiring one such ziggurat, I suddenly flashed on the famous Twilight Zone episode—“Time Enough at Last”—in which Burgess Meredith, amid the ruins of a post-nuclear holocaust world, makes his own To Be Read pile—and then stumbles, breaking his glasses.

What books would I read if I could simply read for my own sweet pleasure? Well, there are at least a dozen major classics of English fiction that I’ve never quite gotten round to—yet. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, for example, and—hangs head in shame—Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. There are, alas, others comparably important. But, in truth, the books I really want to read are far stranger, and far lesser works. What titles, you ask?

First, two books by Cutcliffe Hyne: The Lost Continent, a classic novel about Atlantis, and The Adventures of Captain Kettle, tales of the criminous and fantastical that once rivaled those of Sherlock Holmes in popularity, just as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle—another book I look forward to—outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Then there’s the autobiographical Paul Kelver, by Jerome K. Jerome (author of the comic masterpiece, Three Men in a Boat), and Maurice Baring’s Daphne Adeane, about a strange portrait and the interconnection of ghosts and living people, and Robert Ames Bennet’s Thyra: A Romance of the Polar Pit, in which explorers encounter a Viking-like civilization living within the hollow earth, and Russell Thorndike’s The Slype, a hard-to-find mystery by the creator of Dr. Syn, AKA The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

I’ve read, and written about, Claude Houghton’s existential thriller I Am Jonathan Scrivener, but I’d like to look into his other books, especially those with male names in the titles: This Was Ivor Trent, Julian Grant Loses His Way, Hudson Rejoins the Herd. Similarly, I’ve long meant to read more T. S. Stribling, not just his mystery stories about Dr. Poggioli, such as Clues of the Caribbees, but also his satirical novels, especially his semi-fantasy about academia, These Bars of Flesh. I’ve also got copies of several minor classics of supernatural fiction just waiting for their moment: Alexander Laing’s The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck, Hans Heinz Ewers’s Alraune, Frances Young’s Cold Harbor, and Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber (a favorite of H. P. Lovecraft).

Then, too, I’ve been saving for the right holiday or vacation such oddball whodunits as Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon’s comic A Bullet in the Ballet and T. E. B. Clarke’s alternate history Murder at Buckingham Palace and Michael Fessier’s mix of fantasy, Grand Guignol, and mystery, Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind. Isn’t that an irresistible title? Given time, I’d certainly sample more of the work of Clemence Dane, starting with The Moon Is Feminine, and explore that of Phyllis Paul, beginning with the recently reissued A Cage for the Nightingale. And then there’s J. A. Mitchell’s The Last American, subtitled “A Fragment from the Journal of Khan-Li, Prince of Dimph-Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy.” It was written in 1889.

Not least are all the works I long to read but that are essentially unprocurable, except through inter-library loan or to those who can afford to pay more than $500 for a single book. Frank Walford’s Twisted Clay, written in the 1930s, set in Australia, and immediately banned, is about a lesbian serial killer. Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night, published in 1937, envisions a horrific Nazi-controlled world, 500 years in the future. Then there are R. C. Ashby’s He Arrived at Dusk and Eugene Lee Hamilton’s The Lord of the Dark Red Star and Mortimer Collins’s 1874 occult novel, Transmigration (which includes a section set on Mars), and Oliver Onions’s The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (by the author of the famous ghost story “The Beckoning Fair One”) and Frederick Irving Anderson’s two volumes about master criminals, The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl and The Notorious Sophie Lang. And many more.

What with many of these alluring titles on my bookshelves or precariously arranged in stacks up in the attic, I really do need a long life, with my mental faculties intact and reasonably good vision. Hope springs eternal! Of course, the id side of my reader’s brain tells me that I really should reread War and Peace and The Magic Mountain, or start on The Portrait of a Lady, rather than pick up that copy of The Messiah of the Cylinder, by Victor Rousseau, or Dr. Nikola’s Vendetta, by Guy Boothby. Sigh, truth is, I really do enjoy big, serious, life-changing Great Books of the Western World-style classics. But I also like weird, old stuff.

With the possible exception of steampunk aficionados, many reasonable people must view my fascination with Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction—mysteries, fantasy, and adventure—as eccentric or merely antiquarian. Still, these books do offer good storytelling, moral clarity, and an escape from our meretricious times. Best of all, for me, they also deliver something of the cozy pleasure I got when, as a boy, I first opened The Hound of the Baskervilles, or followed Tarzan into the forbidden city of Opar, or tagged along on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Besides, I’m also an invested member of The Baker Street Irregulars, which meets next weekend for its annual get-together in New York. To a serious Irregular it is always 1895—or at least it is for one long weekend in early January.

 

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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