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Conducted by John Howard, © September 2013

Mark Valentine is the author of several volumes of short stories including The Collected Connoisseur (Tartarus 2010) and Secret Europe (Ex Occidente Press 2012), both shared titles with John Howard. He has also written a biography of Arthur Machen (Seren 1990); and Time, a Falconer (Tartarus Press 2011), a study of the diplomat and fantasist "Sarban". He currently edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.

John Howard: The first three tales in Seventeen Stories appear under the heading "Three Singular Detectives". You have also created two very popular "singular detectives" of your own (Ralph Tyler and The Connoisseur). What is your interest in characters like Sherlock Holmes and Prince Zaleski? Why do many such characters – including yours – seem to generate a "cult" following and status?

Mark Valentine: Prince Zaleski certainly deserves a cult. Who can resist a seer-detective in a remote ruined abbey festooned with relics and curios, who solves his cases without stirring from his silken couch, indeed scarcely without removing his lips from his gemmed chibouque? Both he and Holmes are arcane dandies of the Eighteen Nineties, with all that period's flourish of the aesthetic and decadent. I think such style, such a mood, is certain to impel some discerning readers. The Connoisseur is the distant acolyte of these wonderful figures. And in the third story, "The Return of Kala Persad", I try to give a voice to another exotic visionary, a Hindu mystic from a lineage of cosmic snake-charmers. [See this Wormwoodiana article for more on Kala Persad. -ed.]

"The city's emblem is a golden fleur-de-lys on a scarlet ground. That will do quite well for civic and ceremonial purposes: neat, heraldic, hinting at a proud medieval past it doesn’t in fact have. But it is not the real crest of Trieste, its living sigil. That is far different." – from "The Seer of Trieste"

JH: Heraldry and heraldic symbols are recurring themes in your stories. What attracts you to heraldry?

MV: Bright colours and strange shapes, to begin with. But also a sense that heraldic symbols are a code or shorthand for myths and stories. I think we may sometimes under-appreciate how our response to symbols shapes our thinking and emotions. Court heraldry has perhaps become a bit ossified, with its archaic language and ritual, and its association with social hierarchy. But there's also a vibrant profane heraldry, for instance in logos, brands and images used commercially. And I think there's a folk heraldry too, in the way local places adopt their own emblems and mascots. They might seem just a bit of fun, and they are that: but they can also embody a certain spirit or energy. So heraldry in this broader sense seems to me to be well worth exploring.

"I knew that lore may reach backwards as well as forwards, and take upon itself, in a new guise, all the potency of the past." – from "The Axeholme Toll"

JH: Do you think that English lore (or lore that has been adopted and is now often seen as belonging to England and the English – I am mainly thinking of Arthur/Glastonbury here – has anything to offer us today?

MV: I think all lore can speak to that part of us that isn't materialist. I have a great deal of sympathy with the humanist and rationalist approach (touched on in "Without Instruments") but I recognise too that we are often influenced by, and attracted to, ideas and stories that aren't in the least rational. Hence the ancient and persistent pleasure in tales of the fantastic and supernatural. And, as the Glastonbury author Geoffrey Ashe pointed out (by way of the historian E.A. Freeman), myths may not be historically true but what they say, the very fact of their existence, is an aspect of history. Current Dark Age history books completely do away with Arthur: some make a point of not even mentioning him. I understand this to be a way of stripping right back to very cautious facts. But it reduces us to potsherds and middens. Our ancestors were no more only interested in the material than we are. As Arthur Machen said, "Man is so made that all his true delight arises from the contemplation of mystery, and save by his own frantic and invincible folly, mystery is never taken away from him; it rises within his soul, a well of joy unending."

JH: Your mention of "Without Instruments" leads me conveniently into another question. Despite the title, the music in that story might not be what the reader is expecting – but you do make use of "conventional" music in some of your other stories. What does music mean to you? Do you have a favourite genre and performer/band/composer?

MV: In the early Nineteen Eighties, I was much impressed then by the do-it-yourself spirit of new wave: like many others, I published a zine and some of my first writing was for other zines such as Crash Smash Crack Ring. This was inspired by the band The Fall (whose prime mover, Mark E. Smith, is also a great Machen enthusiast) but it covered anything. I wrote on modern fountains, goatspotting, and had a column, The Dark Parade, on supernatural fiction. I also issued my own recordings on indie tapes (the C60 scene as it was called) and contributed to others. Surprisingly these still crop up: an experimental musician I greatly respect is working on recomposing my reed organ piece (as by The Mystic Umbrellas) "Journey to the West" and a field recording I made (with others) of the sea and a lighthouse foghorn in West Cornwall has been broadcast regularly on basic.fm, a maverick online radio station. I currently listen most to drone or minimalist work, and admire particularly the electronic compositions of Brian Lavelle and the landscape-based work (music, writing and design) of Corbel Stone Press.

"And we started a Thirteen Club whose dinners were marked both by the flouting of superstitions and, I may say, a cavalier contempt for good form and proper order." – from "The Tontine of Thirteen"

JH: Clubs and societies, and their rituals (although not usually the sort adopted by the Thirteen Club!) frequently feature in your stories. Why do you think this is? Has being the member of a club or other group influenced your work?

MV: When I was about sixteen, a perceptive English teacher gave me to read Thomas Love Peacock's Headlong Hall. I was astounded to discover that old literature could be a joy and not just a chore. Peacock had a witty, idiosyncratic way with words and did not disdain slapstick. But what also appealed was the setting: a group of eccentrics gathered in an ancient hall over good food and drink to talk philosophy and nonsense. It seemed to me then, growing up in what I thought was humdrum Northampton, quite the ideal, and I suppose I’ve always been seeking, and sometimes finding, aspects of this in life and in fiction.

JH: Your stories always, it seems to me, possess a strong sense of place – whether real, fictional, or something in between. There is often also a clear cosmopolitan sensibility in your work, which is balanced, perhaps, by your stories with English, if not explicitly Northamptonshire, settings. What leads you to choose a particular setting for a particular story? And what do you think of the idea that the more unusual settings could be a compensation for what you recall as the "humdrum" setting of your adolescence?

MV: I've since come to understand that even the most outwardly unromantic places have their history and mysteries, and bleak allure. Sometimes such localities have strongly suggested a story to me: as I describe in "The Axholme Toll", this inland island of drained marshes hides many legends, some of which I try to weave into the tale. In fact, I've always been drawn to obscure and remote places. My first publication was The Garden of Ruin, God of the Rain, a guidebook to a natural temple, and the second was a monograph on The Holy Wells of Northamptonshire, which was in part my attempt to discover that my home shire wasn’t so humdrum after all. I visited quite a few of these neglected water shrines, which included pools and springs associated with gods, saints, fairies, and folklore figures. I went on to edit Source, a journal of holy well studies, and visited many other sacred sites around the country. I'm sure all this must have influenced aspects of my stories.

"It was his aim to reward the author of the book that most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light . . . " – from "The 1909 Proserpine Prize"

JH: Who you think would be a suitable recipient of the Proserpine Prize today? Which title or titles of theirs would best meet the criterion for the award, and why?

MV: The shortlist for the next Proserpine Prize ought to consist of A Crown for the Unicorn by Mary Anne Allen; Shadows of London by Jonathan Wood; Saraband of Sable by John Gale; Flark of the "Dandibus" by James Worse; The Unfolding Map by John Howard; and A Solitude in Style by K.J. Bishop. Unfortunately none of these books exist yet. But they should.

JH: My blushes! You've given me a great potential title there. I often find the title to be the most difficult part of the story. Some of your own titles, both of books and stories, are certainly intriguing and evocative, leading the reader into exploring further. Which of your titles – if any – are you particularly fond of? Have any only come to you when you’d given up hope?

MV: "The Mascarons of the Late Empire" is one of my favourite titles, and I do believe it was you who helped me find it, by telling me about an architecture scholar who had made fine photographs of mascarons (stone masks). Some stories seem to have a title that belongs to them from the very beginning, but others are harder to find. It's also hard to resist atrocious puns, which is how "The Fall of the King of Babylon" was nearly either "Eel Meet Again" or "Eel Met by Moonlight".

" . . . those who know the secrets of the Wonders will smile and still soar high and wander always in the colours and the light . . . " – from "You Walk the Pages"

JH: When they've finished Seventeen Stories, what do you hope readers will take with them (or find)?

MV: I hope readers will admire the book's design and production qualities, because Swan River does take a lot of care over those. Also, since ideas have a life of their own, if they found aspects of the stories suddenly turning up in unexpected places that would be splendid.

John Howard was born in London. His stories have been published in several anthologies and the books The Silver Voices, The Defeat of Grief, Numbered as Sand or the Stars, and Written by Daylight. With Mark Valentine he contributed to their joint collection Secret Europe, and collaborated with him on several stories in The Collected Connoisseur. Howard has also published articles on many aspects of fantastic fiction, especially the work of Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, and August Derleth.

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