Chrstimas Eve, by Alistair Cooke (1952)

Cover of Christmas Eve by Alistair Cooke

Christmas Eve collects three of Alistair Cooke’s Christmas-time stories from his legendary BBC “Letters from America” broadcast. I listened to the audiobook version of the collection, Letters from America, 1946-1004, recently, and saddened at the thought that his sublimely calm, balanced voice is no longer with us. But this last year would surely have been tough even for him.

Though Christmas Eve is packaged like a children’s book, neither Cooke’s stories nor the wonderful illustrations by Marc Simont are children’s fare. The first story is about an ex-banker, wiped out by the Great Depression and living in a flophouse in the Bowery, who takes a department store Santa job and then celebrates by commandeering a yellow cab and careening around Manhattan. The second is about a Hollywood screenwriter’s “epic” journey to get to his sister’s home in Connecticut by midnight Christmas Eve. What might have seemed epic to Cooke and his listeners in the early fifties seems pretty much like what one out of three people trying to fly home at Christmas experience every year now.

The third is a little fable about an olde New Amsterdammer named Van Dam and his three daughters and his present-day (1952) counterpart, and hinges on whether you think there’s something inherently funny about a name like Van Dam. Well, those were more innocent days in some ways.

The real pleasure in Christmas Eve is not the stories but the voice of the author and the spirit of the illustrations. Treat yourself this weekend: go to the BBC’s archive of “Letters from America” broadcasts and experience this mad world viewed through sane and tolerant eyes.

Christmas Eve, by Alistair Cooke
New York City: Knopf, 1952

Selected Modern Short Stories, edited by Alan Steele (1937)

Selected Modern Short Stories–the first of several collections that editor Alan Steele compiled for Penguin in the late 1930s–offers a good illustration of the random nature of literary fate. Let’s take at look at the authors listed on the cover:

John Hampson

Hampson’s first-published novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931) was a surprise best-seller for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and is back in print now, thanks to the ever-diligent Valancourt Books. It’s considerably harder to find his short stories, however. Only two were ever published i book form, and this in the very scarce Two Stories: The Mare’s Nest and The Long Shadow (1931), hand-printed in an edition of 250 by radical publisher Charles Lahr.

Helen Simpson

Simpson’s historical romances, such as Under Capricorn, were very popular during their time, but are now out of print outside her native Australia. You can, however, find her novel, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), available on the Internet Archive. She published just one collection, The Baseless Fabric (1925), well before this anthology. The one copy I could find for sale goes for $1000. When this was published, one reviewer wrote of it, “… eleven profoundly imagined creations here contained, each one, perfect in the exact balance and unfailing accuracy of its veiled suggestion, concerned with the potencies for good or evil latent in the invisible realm which separates the conscious senses from the surrounding world.”

H. E. Bates

Bates enjoyed a pretty consistent and happy balance of critical and popular esteem throughout his career and it has held on to this day. A good share of his novels and short story collections are in print, but you can also find his collection, The Enchantress (1961), for free on the Internet Archive.

Martin Armstrong

Armstrong’s work is long out of print, which is one reason why I wrote about his Selected Stories (1951) a few months ago. You can find a snippet of his work online in a throw-away compilation titled, What is Happiness? (1939), in which he and other English writers such as J. B. Priestley and Storm Jameson offered their answers to this question. I like Armstrong’s sly approach to avoiding an actual answer:

Before we can be truly happy we must gain control of our minds. How am I to do so?

The answer is simple: by obeying the Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself.’ Good! We are almost, it seems, at the end of our inquiry. Only one question remains: how am I to get to know myself? Ah! Now you’re asking. Saints and philosophers have been engaged on this simple question for some thousands of years but, unhappily, the answer is not yet to hand.

H. A. Manhood

H. A. Manhood was considered one of the best short story writers of the 1930s, but in the mid-1950s he gave up writing entirely and retired to an abandoned railway carriage in a field in West Sussex, where he spent the next decades brewing his own cider and attempting to get by as much as possible on a subsistence basis. Thanks to the Sundial Press, a collection of his stories, Life Be Still!, is now available, but you can also find his Selected Stories (1947)

T. O. Beachcroft

Reviewing Beachcroft’s second story collection, Graham Greene wrote that “Mr. Beachcroft is likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country,” but unlike Bates, his work has disappeared without a trace. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one earlier today. Reviewing one of his later collections in The Spectator, Stevie Smith wrote:

Mr. Beachcroft’s talent is disarming. One thinks: thank heavens just a simple tale, with people one knows and bits of scenery and a bit of human feeling, not much more, but very agreeable. It is not difficult to put the reader in this pleasantly superior frame of mind, and having got the donkey where You want him, the creature is in your power…. Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can enjoy The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946), which I will cover in more depth soon.

Liam O’Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty will probably always have at least his classic novel, The Informer, in print, and his collection, The Wounded Cormorant was a feature of high school reading lists for decades. You can also find The Informer online at the Internet Archive, but for his stories, look for the exemplary collection, The Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1956), at the Open Library.

L. A. G. Strong

Several of Strong’s novels are back in print thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing’s fine series of solid middlebrow novels and story collections from the 1930s-1960s. None of his numerous short story books are in print, but you can enjoy a healthy sample in his Travellers: Thirty-One Selected Stories (147), available from the Internet Archive.

Malachi Whitaker

As Malachi Whitaker, Yorkshire housewife Marjorie Whitaker became known as the “Bradford Chekhov” and was considered perhaps the finest woman writer of short stories between Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, but her work felt out of print for several decades until her collection, The Crystal Fountain, and autobiography, And So Did I, were released by Paladin Press in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they dropped from sight again after than. Just recently, however, Persephone Books added to their growing list of rediscovered by releasing Journey Home and Other Stories.

Frank O’Connor

O’Connor is safely ensconced as the leading Irish short story writer to follow Joyce–as demonstrated by the fact that the introduction to his Collected Stories (1981) was written by none other than famed Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.

William Plomer

Plomer’s is one of those names that fans of neglected books will recognize, as one or other of his books–whether his South African novel Turbott Wolfe or his English novel Museum Pieces or his eccentric family memoir, Curious Relations–often shows up on lists such as those from Antaeus or Tin House. His short stories, however, vanished decades ago. Luckily, you can find a worthy sample on the Internet Archive in his collection Four Countries (1949), which includes stories set in Africa, Japan, Greece, and England. In his introduction, Plomer put himself solidly in the traditionalist camp when it came to short stories:

We rightly expect a story to have a point, and this generally means that we expect it to be dramatic. A short story must let us into the secrets of other people’s lives, and unless it lets us into their lives at a moment of crisis, it is unlikely to have much point or to be dramatic. The crisis may be a small one, but a crisis there must be. This crisis must engage the reader’s imagination, and it must illuminate some new or unfamiliar aspect of the human predicament, or some familiar aspect in a new way. As for the manner in which this is done, there are infinite possibilities, but it must be adroit.

Rhys Davies

Welsh writer Rhys Davies is still popular among his fellow countrymen thanks to the Library of Wales series, but mostly overlooked elsewhere. A large sample of his work can be found online, however, in The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies on the Internet Archive. Davies took a measured view of the lot of the short story writer:

Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate. To such a writer they yield the purest enjoyment; they become a privately elegant craft allowing, within very strict confines, a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more…. The short story gives the release of a day off, when something happened which one remembers with a smile or a start of interest, with a pang or a pause of fear.

Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1922)

From the cover of Croatian Tales of Long Ago

One day late, but in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, which reminds us each year of the didactic benefits of scaring the crap out of kids, I want to celebrate a fine example of fairy tales told with the gloves off. As Bruno Bettelheim (perhaps somewhat plagiaristically) reminded us, uniformly pleasant and positive stories have their place in children’s literature, but so do terror, violence, and horrible-looking monsters with sharp teeth: “‘Safe’ stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.” And while Bettelheim’s argument may have been weakened by the facts of his credentials and practices that have come to light since the publication of The Uses of Enchantment, there is an undeniable edge of terror in many folk tale traditions.

In an article in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, David Boudinot wrote, “Teaching fear through fairy tales is a proven method of helping children learn about safety, and it can help improve a child’s judgement and critical thinking skills.” By this standard, Ivana Brlić-Mažurani&cacute deserves a posthumous plaque from the folks at the National Safety Council for her collection, Croatian Tales of Long Ago available in its English translation by F. S. Copeland on the Internet Archive (link). Here are a few excerpts to demonstrate how these tales can help spice up the endless flow of Paddington pablum:

“Come along, brother, let’s get rid of grandfather. You have weapons. Wait for him by the well and kill him.”

There was the poor little fairy Curlylocks caught in the bowels of the earth! She was buried alive in that vast grave, and perhaps would never again see those golden fields for which she had set out, and all because she would not go straight on by the way they had intended, but would loiter and turn aside to the right and to the left to pry into God’s secrets!

Through fog and twilight ran Reygoch with the children in his arms and the terrified flocks at his heels in frantic flight—all running towards the dyke. And out to meet them flowed the Black Banewater, killing and drowning as it flowed. It is terribly strong, is that water. Stronger than Reygoch? Who knows? Will it sweep away Reygoch, too? Will it drown those poor herd boys and girls also, and must the dear little Fairy Curlylocks die—and she as lovely as a star?

Already the soldiers were battering at the entrance. Heavy clubs hammered on the doors and portals, banging and clanging till all the courts and passages of the soot-blacked house rang again, as though a host from the nethermost Pit were beating on the gates of Oleg the Warden.

Suddenly the Mountain rang with the most awful noise, so that the branches swayed and the leaves trembled on the trees, and the rocks and cliffs re-echoed down to the deepest cavern. It was Belleroo roaring.

So now the Sun thundered forth his anger. All the land fell silent with fear; axes and clubs were dropped in terror as the Sun thundered.

Illustration by Vladimir Kirin from “Croatian Tales of Long Ago”

The Copeland translation, published in 1922 by Frederick A. Stokes Company, is further spiced up with intricate paintings and black-and-white illustrations by Croatian artist Vladimir Kirin. The painting of the lion, bear, and wolf attacking the dragon—speaking of educating through fear and violence—from the book’s cover, however, is by the American illustrator, M. M. Williams (and depicts an event that doesn’t occur in any of the tales).


Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, translated by F. S. Copeland
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922

Paperbacks from the Montana Valley Bookstore

Exterior - Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana

A visit to the Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana, has been one of my rituals during our annual stay in Missoula, but this year events put books and many other things on hold. I did, however, snatch about 45 minutes in the store, just before closing, on my way back from a hospital in Spokane, and harvested about a dozen books from their basement paperback stash. Old paperbacks hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because they were the first books I bought when I started haunting used bookstores back in the mid-1970s. And one of the reasons I love the Montana Valley Bookstore is that it’s one of the ever-dwindling number of used bookstores that still has a substantial holding of paperbacks from the decades before trade paperbacks took over.

With only a short time to spare, I focused on looking for interesting titles by women writers. It’s harder and harder to surprise me — but not impossible, and easily the biggest surprise was the two thick Dell paperbacks by Arona McHugh.

Arona McHugh - Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia

If I’ve ever seen either of these books, I’ve forgotten. But from a material standpoint alone, I recognized a substantial piece of work when I saw it, and, of course, bought them both. Taken together, A Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia tell the stories of a collection of young men and women in post-World War Two Boston. Running over 1300 pages, the two books put Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to shame in the Great American Doorstop Novel Race. Whether the same can be said about their literary merits is something I cannot yet say. The New Yorker’s brief review offered the faint praise that “Mrs. McHugh’s rough, able-bodied style carries her at full speed through almost six hundred pages, in which she describes the manners, looks, and varying sexual capacities and appetites of a group of young Boston people during the years immediately following the Second World War.” Writing in The New York Times, Haskel Frankel was a little less polite, saying that Banner should have been titled, “The Sun Also Rises on King Kong and Lady Chatterley.” Exactly one year later, Seacoast and Frankel again was the Times man on the scene. He surmised that the two books were, in fact, one novel roughly hewn in two by a publisher afraid to launch a single monolith into bookshops, and credited McHugh as “a natural-born storyteller, one of that rare type who can write about rocks and reduce the reader to a jelly.” On the other hand, he also concluded that “Enough is enough and 1,259 pages of painful youth in Boston is too much.” So perhaps I will not be assaulting Mount McHugh anytime soon.

Maude Hitchins - Honey on the Moon

The name Maude Hutchins struck a vaguely familiar note, which is why I picked up Honey on the Moon, but only after a quick search did I see it was because NYRB Classics reissued her novel of a girl’s coming of age, Victorine, with an introduction by Terry Castle. Hutchins spent 27 years in an unhappy marriage with Robert Maynard Hutchins, who played a large role in elevating the University of Chicago to a level equal with the Ivy League. But after their divorce, as Castle puts it, “the defection of the boy wonder that seems to have changed her, almost overnight, from dabbler in the avant-garde to serious writer.” Thumbing through the book, I gathered it’s the story of a young bride who begins to suspect that her older husband married her for her resemblance to — and value as a cover for his interest in — a younger man. Kirkus Reviews called it a “screaming spoof on the New Wave films, the anti-novel, and those drugstore bestsellers of purple passions.” Another reviewer wrote that Hutchins wrote for “the kind of reader who will assume her complexity from her carefully selected simplicities.” This one sounds worth placing in the to-read pile.

Elizabeth Jenkins - Brightness
I knew exactly who Elizabeth Jenkins was when I spotted this copy of her 1963 novel, Brightness. Jenkins, who may hold the longevity record for writers, having passed in 2010 at the age of 104, is best known for her novel of marital tension, The Tortoise and the Hare. When that book was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, Hillary Mantel wrote that it was “as smooth and seductive as a bowl of cream,” and that Jenkins “seems to know a good deal about how women think and how their lives are arranged; what women collude in, what they fear.” Which is interesting, considering that Jenkins herself never married. Brightness is about the relationship between two very different mothers (and their no-so-different sons) in a small English village — the sort of situation that lead immediately to comparisons with Jane Austen. One reviewer called it “a fine novel — rather on the side of the angels, but without a smidgen of candied inspirational guff” and quoted the excellent line, “If you’ve only come across suffering that could be cured by psychiatry, you’ve done pretty well so far.”

Vera Randall - The Inner Room

The Inner Room purports to be a novel, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a linked set of short stories. It tells the individual stories of five women committed to an asylum for a variety of conditions ranging from post-partum depression to alcoholism. One of the stories was originally published in The New Yorker. Although, in an early NY Review of Books issue, Martha Cameron wrote that the book was “affecting and yet somehow fraudulent,” Randal appears to have based the work on first-hand observations, as he went on to publish a second novel (story collection?) on essentially the same topic, You Get Used to a Place.

Anne Bernays - The New York Ride
The New York Ride was the second of Anne Bernays’ ten novels, an account of the growing up and growing apart of two friends — first on a tour of Italy, swapping away ever-hovering Italian men, then in New York City as they navigate through the “floating crap game” artists, poets and poseurs in the Village, and finally in their married lives, when one’s apparent bi-polar disorder (two decades before it was routinely diagnosed) starts to rip things apart. One reviewer wrote that it was “fueled by a wit, intelligence and perception that make it a pleasure to read.”

Iris Dornfeld - Jeeney Ray

“Several cuts above Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” declares a quote from a Sacramento Bee review. This was enough to pick Jeeney Ray as a subject for further research. What I did find out was that Iris Dornfeld was another woman who was better known as Mrs. Someone Else — in her case, Mrs. Carey McWilliams, whose husband was editor of The Nation magazine and journalist who first came to fame for his work exposing the brutal conditions of farm workers in California. Jeeney Ray earned respectable reviews from the few major national papers and magazines to review it. In The Saturday Review, Aileen Pippett wrote, “Every memorable novel has its distinctive tone. This one sings. Yet the characters are mostly brutal, ignorant, or depraved, their language is coarse and their actions are in keeping. Nature pleaseth, in Northern California, but man is frequently vile. Against a murky background Jeeney Ray herself shines like a star.” Jeeney Ray is considered mentally handicapped by most everyone in her town, but her grandmother has a greater trust in her senses. After many hardships and misunderstandings, Jeeney Ray is correctly diagnosed as spastic — not that a diagnosis alone make for a happy ending. Interestingly, Dornfeld’s only other novel, Boy Gravely, dealt with a protagonist who didn’t understand he was suffering from epilepsy. Dornfeld had grown up in the same area Jeeney Ray is set in, from what she called “a family of singers, storytellers, bible-reciters, make-believers, and downright liars.”

Based on what 45 minutes produced, I look forward to having more time to browse when I return next year.

Popular Library’s “That’s So ’70s” Take on Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

As I mentioned in my introductory post on Pilgrimage, there have been five editions in which the complete set of chapters/novels were published:

  • A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent and Cresset Press in 1938
  • A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from Knopf in 1938
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent in 1967
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Popular Library in 1976
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Virago in 1979

Of these, by far the oddest is the mass-market paperback set from Popular Library, one of which I am now the proud owner of.

I kind of remember seeing these when they first came out. As an English major, I was vaguely aware of Dorothy Richardson, probably having seen a reference to her in some survey piece I had to read as part of Prof. Malcolm Brown’s course on the 20th century British novel, but knew not much more than that she was lumped with Virginia Woolf, who I considered (at the time, and in the words of one of my classmates) “too adjective-y.” But when I saw these on the shelf, probably of the University Book Store , is it any wonder that I quickly labelled and filed them away under “soft porn”?


If I bothered to open any of the four volumes — and I’m sure I didn’t — nothing in the inside cover would have dissuaded me from that opinion. To help would-be readers out, Popular Libary provided one-line synopses of the chapters:

Pointed Roofs

“filled with the intrigues and hidden passions of a German girl’s school…”


“a school of life and love in London, where two different men each demand that Miriam be his…”


“an escape from the bondage of the flesh into the ecstasies of the spirit…”


“in which Miriam Henderson plunges into an affair with a man of an alien race…”

The Trap

“a world of women who scorn men — an inverted world that welcomes Miriam with open arms…”

Dawn’s Left Hand

“introducing Miriam to the joys and the agonies of a passionate love between two women…”

Even now, it makes me want to wash my hands.


And then there are the cover photos. OK, they are true on one point: Miriam is a woman.

But the books are set between 1893 and 1915. And Miriam is short (5′ 4″, according to Richardson). And not considered particularly good looking by any of the men she encounters. And a brunette. Who was probably lucky to wash her hair more than once every few weeks, and who certainly never used a conditioner. And, though I haven’t done my research on this point, I’m pretty sure she never used lip gloss, either. Or had her portraits taken by Bob Guccione.

Contrary to the tag line above each volume title, Pilgrimage was not a “towering novel of the female revolution.” If it was, the females lost, unless “level of self-knowledge” had more political power back then than it does now.

In case we unwary buyers weren’t convinced by the covers, the backs of the books further promised that this could the kind of soft porn you could read in public — sort of like Proust meets Emmanuele:


Now, anyone who bothered to read the finer print below it would actually get a fairly objective description of Pilgrimage:

The magnificent novels that comprise Pilgrimage constitute one of the most enthralling and revealing [as in illuminating, not as in she takes her clothes off … a lot] fiction experiences of our time. Each novel is designed as a separate drama, but all form beautifully wrought links of a chain of being and becoming that lead its remarkable heroine, Miriam, through the major conflicts and decisions that have affected humanity, and most particularly women, in our century of crisis and change.

In this extraordinary work of art, Dorothy Richardson creates a style and projects a vision that give twentieth women both a voice and an identity. For this is woman’s fiction in the finest sense of the term — fiction that explores the many facets of modern life, whether sex or politics, friendship or art, though the eyes of a woman bent on changing the world as she changes herself. Long considered by leading critics one of the key achievements of modern literature, Pilgrimage at least reaches the American public in this four-volume edition.

The trouble is, if soft porn is what you have in mind, you could read all of the above and think this was a female version of My Secret Life (which was also, by the way, a fairly regular item in a liberated fiction section in the late 1970s).

There is little chance that this Popular Library series will make a permanent mark in publishing or literary history. Quality was never a hallmark of the company. As you can see from the above, the four books are actually even the same size, quite. When I got this set in the mail recently, I opened up the first volume and the brittle cover proceeded to break off completely from the binding. Another decade or two, and these puppies will self-destruct. And another scarifying ’70s relic will, thankfully, be lost forever.

The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies (1958)


The odd, alien green tint of the cover of the U.S. edition of Mary McMinnie’s second novel, The Visitors is somehow appropriate for this long out-of-print book, for it manages to be, at the same time, both highly realistic–indeed, drearily, tediously, relentlessly realistic at times, the kind of realism that’s so convincing that it can feel like the writer is holding your head under water and you want to struggle to break free–and utterly artificial.

The artificiality comes from the situation in which McMinnies places her main character, Milly Purdoe. A beautiful, lively but superficial woman, she find herself stuck in a grim provincial Polish city–a fictional equivalent of Krakow–in its bleakest, most repressive post-Stalinist days, the trailing spouse of a minor British Foreign Service officer. (The German title of the book was Seltsame Gäste–“Strange Guests.”) Quartered in a cold apartment in the town’s once-grand hotel, she has little to do but avoid tangles with her children’s stone-faced nanny, look for antiques in the pathetic stores and flea markets, and read Madame Bovary. Although the nanny is a novelty, a sign of her husband’s rise in the civil service, everything else is a little too familiar to Milly:

Already it was October. That was how time passed. Between departure from the last place, arrival at the next, and for a week or two either side, miraculously it stood still–if you could always be doing that, coming and going, going and coming. But no sooner had you arrived than you began, because it had to be and you were experienced at it, to settle in. No sooner were you settled in and starting to find your feet, yet still making discoveries like where to buy the best sausage and the bread and each day holding the promise of some novel experience before it close, than, before you knew where you were, the days would begin to assume a pattern, to merge into each other, yesterday like to-day, to-day like to-morrow; and in front of your eyes, little by little, the excitement would be fading, the novelty becoming stale, until in no time at all you knew you would be passing through the intermediate stage, the seemingly endless one you care for least, between coming and going. It would be like living in a dream; not uncomfortable, because only reality is that–your pulse-beat steady, you would be eating well, sleeping well; but certain times of day, the performing of certain actions, sherry at twelve, gin at six, brushing your teeth, pouring tea, seeming to come round with deadly regularity until you would feel something simply had to happen to joly you out of it, the dream routine; even if it were to be no more than a gale, like the gale with had raged the night before and had swept not only a great many leaves off the trees but a leaf off the calendar, too, and now it was October.

And so, like Flaubert’s romantic trapped in a dull French provincial town, Milly soon finds ways to keep busy that are undoubtedly amusing to her but also clearly dangerous and self-destructive when carried out under the eyes of a paranoid police state.

The Visitors is a big, ambitious book, rich is characterization and description, ruthless in its social satire, mesmerizing in its powerful narrative vortex. Some reviewers found that McMinnie’s ambitions outstretched her artistic reach, comparing her work with that of the period’s biggest over-the-topper, James Jones. It was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, which boosted its U.S. sales, and was twice released as a paperback, the second time in 1967 as a Penguin paperback. It’s been out of print ever since, though, and McMinnies appears to have published nothing since. A couple of readers remember it with enthusiasm on Goodreads and Amazon, but their reviews and this one are the book’s sole mentions on the Web.

The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies
New York City: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958

The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford


The cover of The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled is chock full of all that is good in pulp fiction: sex, violence, alcohol and weirdness. The weirdness comes in part from the rather odd perspective of the picture (perhaps the artist had been punched by the guy in the tie and was looking up from the floor), in part from the Gregory Peck-like man in the middle, who seems outraged by the behavior of the guy in the tie but unable to get up from his chair, and in part from the title. Drunk, damned and bedevilled? We can easily imagine a classic pulp titled, The Drunk and the Damned. But Bedevilled? It comes across as hardly stronger than Befuddled.

The title is even odder when one considers that the novel’s original title was He Feeds the Birds, which comes from the Bible, Matthew 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” One can see how this title wasn’t exactly fit for purpose if the aim was to grab the eye of a scanning would-be buyer of cheap fiction, but did Bedevilled slip in as an unconscious nod to the Christian basis of the original?

Finally, to top off things odd, when Berkeley Books decided to give Terence Ford’s book another try as a pulp in 1959, they steered in the opposite direction, going with the riveting title, Easy Living, and a cover that replaces a cocktail party fight with a starving writer listening to his wife’s pregnant belly.


The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford
New York: Avon Books, 1952

Classic Covers from Claude Kendall Books

I recently picked up a first (and only) edition of Felix Riesenberg’s 1933 novel, Mother Sea, and was intrigued to see that it came from Claude Kendall, the same publisher that issued some of Tiffany Thayer’s most notorious over-the-top pot-boilers (including Thirteen Men and Thirteen Women).

Doing a bit of Googling, I quickly learned two things about Mr. Kendall: first, that he was murdered in a New York City hotel room in 1937, a murder that has never been solved (courtesy of The Passing Tramp); and second, that while the literary standards of his firm may not have been the highest, their book covers are among the most memorable of their period. Here is a little sample for your guilty pleasures:

Uncle Sham, by Kanhaya Lal Gauba (1929)

This scathing satire of American life, subtitled “Being the Strange Tale of a Civilisation Run Amok,” which viewed the country from the perspective of the most virulent and self-righteous visitor, was a reaction to Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, Mother India. The New Yorker’s reviewer called it “the best comic volume of the year.”

Lo!, by Charles Fort (1931)


Depending on whose side you take, Charles Fort was either a “satirist hugely skeptical of human beings” or “a patron of cranks.” Either way, he was well-regarded by some people and still is today. He’s got his own society (the International Fortean Organization) and a magazine (Fortean Times) devoted to the phenomena he studied. Lo! comes with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer, illustrations by Alexander King (viz. my pan of his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older), and cover plugs by Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and John Cowper Powys.

Smoking Altars, by Gladys St. John Loe (1936)

smoking altars

Murder mysteries were a specialty for Claude Kendall, preferably set in exotic locations. This one takes place on a plantation in Kenya. Lionel Houser’s Lake of Fire was set in Burma, The Surrender of Helen in the South Seas, and Death Rides the Air Line on the then-novel mode of transportation. Murder in Bermuda, written by Kendall’s financial backer, Willoughby Sharp (who added his name on the books starting in 1934), is self-explanatory.


Pasha the Persian, by Margaret Linden, with illustrations by Milt Gross (1936)


Illustrated by the legendary cartoonist, Milt Gross, this might have been meant by Ms. Linden to be a children’s story, but Gross’ wild drawings put this solidly in the American tradition of tall tales, and might have been Gross’ attempt to out-do his compatriot George Herriman’s KrazyKat.

Twisted Clay, by Frank Walford (1934)


Fetching a whopping $2,000 on Amazon, this novel of a demented teen-aged lesbian, in the words of James Doig, “has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.” It was banned for decades in Walford’s native Australia, although from the looks of it, Walford might have been plowing the same row as Kendall fave Tiffany Thayer. You can read more about the book on Wormwoodiana, the Tartarus Press blog. Kendall also published another early classic of lesbiana, G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends.

Claude Kendall’s house was, in a way, the Grove Press of its time. Kendall did attempt to gain U. S. publication rights for Ulysses, although it might have been as much for its scandalous reputation as its literary merit. He did release the first U. S. edition of Octave Mirbeau’s S&M classic, Torture Garden.


On the other hand, while Beth Brown’s two novels, For Men Only and Man and Wife, had historical settings (New Orleans of the 1890s), I suspect their attraction had more to do with their subjects (a madame and a prostitute, respectively). And the fact that the Kendall catalogue is rich with such obvious works of fine writing as Dark Dame, Six Lost Women, and Secret Ways tips the scales, I’m afraid, on the side of trash. On the bright side, one can honestly say that there is a larger audience of connoisseurs of fine trash now than there ever was, so I welcome them to dive into the vintage dumpsters of Claude Kendall (and Wiloughby Sharp) and see what treasures they can find.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell

Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of 'There's One in Every Town'
Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of "There's One in Every Town"

“Completing engrossing on every page,” proclaims a plug by Erskine Caldwell on the cover of the Signet paperback edition of James Aswell’s short novel, There’s One in Every Town (1951). It appears beneath a James Avati cover featuring a wary brunette in a Carmen blouse (is there any other kind in a James Avati cover?). So we know we’re in Tobacco Road country, where beautiful white trash girls have a Viagra-like effect on all the men in town. Not surprisingly, as Aswell was an old college classmate of Caldwell.

In this particular instance, Jackie Vose (nee Cvasek) gets a reputation as a fast girl, but a few men believe her to be an angel at the core. One is her neighbor, who narrates the story, and the other the town’s doctor. The doctor eventually falls for her, to the town’s censure, and the two come to an end that reminded me of those Nancy Reagan fables that National Lampoon used to publish: where, no matter what sin the protagonists had committed, they always ended up run over by a runaway schoolbus.

Aswell, the son of a congressman, hailed from Baton Rouge, and published a number of novels about life down in the steamy South. Several of these also got picked up by Signet and graced with a dramatic Avati cover: The Young and the Hungry Hearted (Signet 116) and The Birds and the Bees (Signet 1121). The Midsummer Fires, however, only rated an Avon paperback release with a cartoonish cover–this despite the fact that a Natchitoches reviewer considered it to have beat out novels by Caldwell and James M. Cain as “the most nauseating book of 1948.”

Aswell died in 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 48.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell
Indianapolis: Bobbs -Merrill, 1952

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Breaking Up," by W. H. Manville

I was tempted to tag this post Justly Neglected?, as Breaking Up, W. H. Manville’s 1962 bizarre novel of obsessively apathetic love is really quite bad. But out of respect for the fine work of graphic arts legend, Tony Palladino, who also designed the cover for Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, I’m listed this under “Covers.”

For Breaking Up, Palladino came up with a simple, striking image: an upside-down aerial shot of midtown Manhattan. It worked its magic with me, as it was the cover rather than the jacket blurb that led me to buy and read the book. Well, that and the setting: I’m always a sucker for books set in Manhattan, particularly when the protagonist works on Madison Avenue. And one could imagine Bill, the husband whose wife leaves him in the opening chapter, working alongside Don Draper–although it’s clear he lacks any real talent as an ad man, sculptor, or lover. His creative director sums up his character succinctly:

You want to be the American Rembrandt of the sculpture guys, you want to succeed in this business–you’ll wake up to the fact you want the dough as much as anyone one of these days–you want to have the greatest love story of all time with your wife, you want to be the guy who can beat the system, who can do all the other things, too. All without working at any of them. You want all that. Result: you get paralyzed.

Which reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wonderful assessment of one of his acquaintances, Barry Pink: “Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse.”

For a good two-thirds of the book, the reader has to follow Bill around as he wrestles with that timeless question: does he, or doesn’t he? His eyes are eventually opened to the anguish his wife has suffered trying to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband is an apathetic lump (he helps her pack when she moves out). He comes across her diary from the months before the break-up:

He is teaching me sculpture. It is hard for him to do and I pretend not to be too eager. He feels it is his own and as if he is giving part of himself away to me. And he is–at last.

Bill, I’ve been starving for you.

He finds in it a refuge. Sometimes I’m glad he has something in which he is not locked up and incoherent, but it frightens me in him. So remote.

Thus the angst of the remote Bill, seeking an outlet in his art, is channeled and magnified by his wife. My own feeling about Bill can be summed up by a quote from Tom Lehrer: “I feel that if a person has problems communicating, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Somehow the revelations of the diary trigger a burst of action from the clod, and in the final chapters, in the course of one frenetic night, he tries to win her back, tries to destroy the tubercular male model she’s hooked up with, tries to orchestrate a con by which his agency’s key account can be saved, and tries to win a big account on which he and the above creative director can set up a new agency of their own. It’s not only completely unbelievable but technically inept: it’s not too entertaining when the juggler is running around the stage chasing after dropped balls.

It’s a good thing I read this on board a transatlantic flight: it forced me to withstand the temptation to toss the book out the window. Breaking Up is one book that deserves to sleep with the fishes.

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

Keeper of the Flame, by I. A. R. Wylie

Cover of Popular Library paperback edition of "Keeper of the Flame"

This Popular Library edition of I. A. R. Wylie’s 1942 novel, Keeper of the Flame, dates from the early 1960s. There are some remarkable titles to be found among the best-sellers, bodice-rippers, and dreck that Popular Library released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wrote about a few of them about a year ago in the post, Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store.”

This is a particularly odd example. MGM purchased the film rights to Keeper of the Flame when the book was still unpublished. It was then published by Random House before the film was released, but subsequent runs featured a dust jacket with a still shot from the movie.

The film is best remembered today as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first, but it and the novel are nothing like their usual comedies. Steven O’Malley (Tracy), a celebrated foreign correspondent of the Quentin Reynolds-Vincent Sheean-John Gunter school, recently returned from Europe, takes an assignment to write the life story of Robert Forrest, a New England governor who’s inspired a nationwide populist movement. Forrest is considered a Lincoln-like figure, the great hope of the nation, but as O’Malley investigates, he finds there are some curious figures in Forrest’s household–including his wife.

I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that Forrest proves to have been a little more like Lincoln Rockwell than Abraham Lincoln.

Aside from the unusual story, Keeper of the Flame–both the novel and the film–are far more interesting seen in the context of their external connections and references. One watches the film looking for hints of the budding attraction between Hepburn and Tracy. One reads the novel in light of the figures such as Charles Lindburgh and Father Coughlin who inspired popular movements in America in the 1930s and 1940s–movements we now see as having a darker side.

Having written recently about Wylie’s memoir, My Life with George, I was impressed by two aspects of the book. First, it’s hard not to think that Wylie wrote it for the screen: there are at least a dozen scenes that play out exactly as filmed, and the whole sequence of the narrative matches that of the film so tightly it could have been a novelization after the fact. Second, despite the many superficial and clichéd characterizations, it’s obvious that Wylie was a very world-smart woman: if she played down her intelligence, it was because she’d had, by the 1940s, also thirty years’ experience of making a living with her writing.