The Watcher and Other Weird Stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873) has long been a favourite of mine since I first discovered his weird tales in ghost story collections, still the place you’re most likely to find his work. His ghost stories are frequently superior to the more celebrated MR James (who edited a Le Fanu collection), they’re less formulaic and often quite inexplicable. Green Tea, from In a Glass Darkly (1872) chills for its atmosphere of apparently random and unjustified malevolence; it’s also alarming for the directness of its central idea which I won’t spoil if you haven’t read it. Anyone wanting to know why Le Fanu is still read today should start there.

Unlike MR James, Le Fanu has lacked for illustrators so I was surprised to find this edition of his work at the Internet Archive with illustrations by his son, Brinsley. The artwork isn’t of the highest quality, and it’s debatable whether tales as nebulous and evocative as ghost stories should be illustrated at all, but their singularity makes them worth a look. The Watcher and Other Weird Stories is a small collection which includes A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, a story memorably adapted for television by Leslie Megahey in 1979.

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Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller

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I said, “Girl, you drank a lot of Drink Me,
But you ain’t in a Wonderland
You know I might-a be there to greet you, child,
When your trippin’ ship touches sand.”

Donovan, The Trip (1966)

Most of the key texts of the psychedelic period tend to be either non-fiction—Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience—or spiritual works such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the volume upon which Leary’s book is based and which subsequently provided John Lennon with lines for Tomorrow Never Knows. The key fictional work of the era has to be Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a fact that would no doubt have surprised the book’s legions of enthusiastic Victorian readers, never mind its author. Grace Slick created the definitive Alice song with White Rabbit in 1965, written while she was with the Great Society but only recorded properly in 1967 after she’d joined Jefferson Airplane. But Alice’s adventures run a rich seam of Victorian whimsy through the music of 1966 to ’69, especially among the British bands whose lyrics tend to be far more childish and frivolous than their American counterparts. Donovan probably got there first among the Brits with The Trip on his Sunshine Superman album. Among the profusion of later references can be found one-off singles such as Alice in Wonderland (1967) by the Dave Heenan Set (who recorded songs for the Barbarella soundtrack as The Glitterhouse) and Jabberwock/Which Dreamed It? (1968) by Boeing Duveen & The Beautiful Soup, a band whose songwriter is better known today as Hank Wangford.

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Strange cargo: things found in books

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The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden, City Lights Books (1972).

One of the additional pleasures of buying old books besides finding something out-of-print (or, it has to be said, something cheap) occurs when those books still possess traces of their previous owners. A recent posting on The Other Andrew’s page concerned book inscriptions, something any book collector will be used to seeing. Less common are the objects which slip from the pages when you’ve returned home. There are several categories of these.

1: Bookmarks

I have a substantial collection of bookmarks proper, from embossed strips of leather to the more mundane pieces of card of the type that bookshops frequently give away. But I also make a habit of using odd inserts to mark a place as did the previous owners of these volumes. The City Lights book (above) came with a very fragile leaf inside it which may well be as old as the book. Another City Lights book I own, the Artaud Anthology from 1965, included a newspaper article about Artaud. Newspaper clipping inserts are discussed below.

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