Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Sphinxes and Obelisks, by Mark Valentine

Tartarus Press, 2021
266 pp


The other day I received an email notifying me that Tartarus has published a two-volume set of the Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, which I quickly bought.  I received a "notification of payment" email from Ray Russell, saying that the books would be posted next week.  I emailed back to thank him and happened to mention how very much I was enjoying this book, and he made the most spot-on comment ever:

"Mark has a way of making you feel that you need just a few more shelves..."

A "few more shelves" indeed: this time around the final tally is fourteen books bought out of the list of 36 I noted as "want to read," with  three more already on my shelves thanks to Valancourt. Where I'm going to put all of these I don't know, but that's what happens when I read Valentine's essays.  I know from experience that before I even open one of his books I'm going to need a pen and paper to write down the titles he discusses, and I also know that I will not escape unscathed as far as the bank account goes. And I don't care.  

Sphinxes and Obelisks is (as are many of Valentine's essay collections) a book lover's paradise, with the  dustjacket blurb mentioning books that have been "overlooked," offering examples of such "recondite reading" material as 
"an interplanetary fantasy by a Welsh squire; a timeslip into a mysterious England by a priest once called the original Dorian Gray; an avant-garde novel about a tea-party and the Holy Grail."

I mean, seriously, who could resist?  At the same time, this book is also a fascinating collection of odd miscellany of rather out-there topics including the Sphinx Illusion performed in 1865 at the Egyptian Hall, a "strange head of myth speaking" to an audience "from out of a casket, uttering its omens and riddles;" an essay on what ghosts wear, and the game "Cat-at-the-Window" as recalled by Edward Marsh  in his memoirs,  which ends in speculation as to whether Algernon Blackwood's story "Ancient Sorceries" "may have been inspired by a too fevered indulgence in the cat game" (read the story, you'll understand) and the possibility of a  more "pedestrian and peregrinatory version of the game" having been known to Arthur Machen, "the eminent historian of Dog and Duck, an old bowling game," and "admirer of cats."   As a matter of fact (and unsurprisingly)  many of these essays contain various literary roads leading to Machen, as well as various examples of one of my own newly-discovered reading passions, psychogeography (especially in "Apocalypse and Marrow Jam: Pilgrim from Paddington") which also happens to stem from my reading of  Machen's Hill of Dreams last year.  

Colonel Stodare (with the Sphinx)  as he appears in the book; this photo is from Travelanche

Beginning and ending with treks through bookstores (never new books, by the way), in dreams and with  writer John Howard, Sphinxes and Obelisks is another must-read collection  for fellow travelers who are easily led down the rabbit hole to dally in the realm of the obscure.  I have to say that Mark Valentine is one of the few writers whose fiction and nonfiction works consistently attain the level of near perfection; this book has the feel of listening to an old friend whose love of literature knows no bounds.  

Very, very highly recommended; one of my favorite books so far this year. 

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