The summer literary activities of Michael Dirda


When I paused my Post book column in July and August, it wasn’t for two months of summer R&R. First, I wanted to finish a draft of my own book on popular fiction in late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Second, I owed long articles – on Oscar Wilde and Walter de la Mare – to two different magazines. Third, and not least, my house needed more shelving or – my beloved wife’s preferred alternative – fewer books.

As a result, I worked harder than ever on my “holiday,” but with mixed results. For example, my book “The Great Age of Storytelling” is now 200,000 words, which means it has to be cut as well as usual. polishing and acceleration. I acquired five beautiful bookcases – a gift from a reader who was downsizing – but they are currently stored in a neighbor’s garage. Exactly where to place them in this small colonial brick remains an open question.

What bookstores and literary life contribute to… life

Despite my obsessive-compulsive work ethic, there were some welcome interruptions. My wife, our youngest son, and I went to a nephew’s wedding in Rochester, NY, listening to Jonathan Cecil reliably and hilarious perform PG Wodehouse’s “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.” In fact, the trip left me with unexpected hope for the future. My nephew is black, his fiancée is white, and dinner that night was largely made up of their friends. As I looked around the noisy room, I noticed that the various tables, which had unassigned seats, each presented groups of young people of various races, laughing and flirting and enjoying each other’s company. others.

It doesn’t seem like much, but it was definitely encouraging, a welcome change from my usual mood of “Changing and breaking down all around, I see.” Two weeks later, my three adult sons, along with a daughter-in-law and three of the world’s cutest grandchildren gathered here for the first time since the pandemic began. When they weren’t eating, we took afternoon trips to Brookside Gardens, the National Zoo and the Baltimore Aquarium, at one of which – sigh – we all caught covid. But this is another story.

Most of the time, though, I spent my days hesitantly typing sentences, while occasionally risking heat stroke to mow the grass or help my gardener wife in her endless battle with weeds and flash floods. In the evening I read “Far Away and Long Ago”, WH Hudson’s beautifully written 1918 memoir of growing up in the Argentine pampas in the 1840s, followed by Mary Kingsley’s “Travels in West Africa” in 1897 and H. Rider Haggard’s “She and Allan,” the 1921 novel that brings together the near-immortal Ayesha, aka She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and big-game hunter Allan Quatermain. From bedtime, Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons have soothed an often troubled mind. My current favorite panel shows a car stopped by the police. There’s a dog with a big nose behind the wheel and in the front passenger seat a middle-aged man saying to the officer, “Hey, I’m not mad … Of course, I let him drive once in a while, but he’s never, never off leash for even a second.

I like unusual books. Here is what I would read — if I had the time.

People also gave me books. A retired English teacher urged me to finally take on Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” then stopped by my house with scholarly works to guide me. Two friends, both stalwarts of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, brought along a long series of the society’s elegant and witty journal, Knight Letter. A fellow member of the Baker Street Irregulars even sent me several bound volumes of British periodicals from the early 1900s. There is no shortage of tantalizing articles. For example, Nash’s Magazine of 1907 features a profile of Maurice Leblanc, creator of the gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin, and a series on public tastes for books, with contributions from H. G. Wells, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and other authors. notables of the time. .

In mid-August, I felt entitled to a purely extravagant treat: the stars were right for a quick visit to Providence, RI, to attend NecronomiCon, that unparalleled celebration of weird fiction. With around 2,000 attendees, it’s much more intimate than the National Book Festival in Washington or the comic book-focused Awesome Con. There were tours of HP Lovecraft lairs, B-movie horror movies, author readings, a gamers room, a merchants room (where I bought a locket that read “Cthulhu Waits”) and dozens of panels on, for example, the work of Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker and the preservation of pulp magazines. On Friday night Robert Lloyd Parry as MR James took a captivated audience through the chilling ‘Count Magnus’. The following night, beautifully costumed characters both sexy and grotesque made their way to the con’s masquerade ball, with this year’s theme being Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Naturally, between the official talks and the introductions, there was a heady conversation with many friends over clam cakes, fish-and-chips, shepherd’s pie and Guinness. In a trade with one of these friends, I acquired DuBose Heyward’s quirky classic, “The Half-Pint Flask”, and two rare tracks by Marjorie Bowen (written as George R. Preedy) , “Lyndley Waters” and “The Fourth Chamber”. ” Writer-teacher Michael Cisco generously donated a copy of his vast and scholarly “Weird Fiction: A Genre Study” (Palgrave Macmillan) and Peter Rawlik inscribed “The Eldritch Equations and Other Investigations” (Jackanapes Press), his collection of mystery stories, in a way, taking place in the fictional universe of Lovecraft. In the Dealer Room, Hippocampus Press — which specializes in Lovecraft and his entourage — filled a table with its latest publications, including David E. Schultz’s carefully annotated edition of the nightmarish sonnet sequence “Fungi from Yuggoth.” . The best title of all time.

Needless to say, Providence’s second-hand bookstores, Paper Nautilus and Cellar Stories, proved irresistible, as did Post writer and critic Paul Di Filippo’s suggestion of a trip to Connecticut’s Niantic Book Barn. . Among other things, I unearthed a volume of tributes to the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, “A Pamphlet Against Anthologies” by Robert Graves and Laura Riding, an illustrated catalog devoted to rarities by Jorge Luis Borges and backup copies of personal favorites such as “Collector’s Progress” by Horace scholar Walpole WS Lewis and Stanley Elkin’s heavenly comedy, “The Living End”.

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Once back home, I closed out the summer listening to a pair of CDs dramatizing “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu”, both from HP’s old Dark Adventure Radio Theater. Lovecraft Historical Society. I’m saving their epic “Masks of Nyarlathotep” on six CDs for my next long road trip. It should be perfect late at night, when it’s easy to take the wrong turn off a country road and suddenly find yourself driving through a lonely and oddly curious landscape.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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