31 December 2017

Bliss Carman's New Year's Rockin' Eve

          The air is pulsing as with crowding wings.
          Migrant Ideals and valiant-hearted Dreams,
          The Heavenly vanguard of eternity,
          Muster to cross the frontier of new days.
          A brave unhasting company, they throng
          Out of old years with life’s immortal zest,—
          In gleaming panoply of seraphim
          Advance these dauntless heralds of all good.
          ‘Tis midnight hour. The clanging bells break forth.
          The march of man has crossed the boundary
          Into another year. Close up the ranks!
          Our ancients bid, fare on! New Year, Salute!
          The promise of the past is on your knees.
          The glory of all time is unto God.
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30 December 2017

My Favourite Read of 2017?

Not Wives and Lovers, the best novel. Not Frustration, the worst. Not Dan Hill's self-flagellating Comeback, the strangest. No, my favourite and most memorable read this year was Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth. Ian McGillis posed the question and I answered, with explanation, in the Montreal Gazette.

Kaie Kellough, Sean Michaels, Sina Queyras, Heather O'Neill, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Jack Todd, and Kathleen Winter chime in with theirs.

Read all about it here:

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27 December 2017

A Scarytale of Old York

The Gerrard Street Mystery
John Charles Dent
Constance Bay: Three Bats, 2017
32 pages

A Christmas gift read on Christmas Day, "The Gerrard Street Mystery" is one of the very few Christmas ghost stories to come out of Victorian Canada. You'll get no argument from me if you disagree. There is a ghost, but the holiday is mentioned only briefly. Though the climax takes place in December 1861, the narrator and hero misses Christmas Day itself because he is unconscious.

The title story of The Gerrard Street Mystery and Other Weird Tales, issued in 1888 by Rose Publishing, this is, of course, the work of a dead man. I've always found it interesting that the book was put together within weeks of his funeral. Why the rush? There couldn't have been much hunger for such a thing; John Charles Dent was not known as a writer of fiction, but as a journalist historian, and biographer. Prior to that, he'd been a lawyer, which may account for the legal-sounding start to this weird tale:
My name is William Francis Furlong. My occupation is that of a commission merchant, and my place of business is on St. Paul Street, in the City of Montreal. I have resided in Montreal ever since shortly after my marriage, in 1862, to my cousin, Alice Playter, of Toronto.
William gives a brief, dry account of his early life – stained by the loss of his parents – in order to explain how it was that he came to be raised by his uncle, Richard Yardington, a prominent Toronto businessman. Cousin Alice, was not so unfortunate in that she lost only her mother. However, as her father is a man of "dissipated habits," she too was taken into Uncle Richard's care. As the years pass, William's "childish attachment" to Alice ripens to "tender affection," and the two become engaged. Though their uncle shares nothing of "the prejudice entertained by many people against marriage between cousins," he is a firm believer that his male ward should demonstrate the ability to provide. Thus, William embarks for Australia, so as to better oversee his business interests.

Four years pass, during which William amasses a respectable return. Uncle Richard writes calling him home. William responds that obligations will prevent a return for a further six months, but his business wraps up early, and he is soon on a ship sailing from Melbourne. No use in writing Uncle Richard or Alice of course; he'd likely arrive in Toronto on the same day as his letter.

Mystery in "The Gerrard Street Mystery" begins en route when William, on a lark, asks whether there might be something for him in General Delivery at the main post office in Boston's Merchant's Exchange Building.

He is gobsmacked to discover that there is!

The letter is from Uncle Richard*:

How could affectionate Uncle Richard have known that his ward would be in Boston? Why would he think that William might ask for a letter at General Delivery? How could Uncle Richard have known he'd be home for Christmas? Most of all, what sorrow has befallen beloved Alice?

Answering these questions would only spoil the story. Instead, I'll borrow a page from my friend J.F. Norris of Pretty Sinister in sharing three things I learned in reading the story:

William returns to Toronto via the mid-day express from Hamilton. As his train arrives at Union Station, he spots Uncle Richard in the Waiting Room. Until then, I had no idea that Union Station of 1861 was so very, very small.

Not to be outdone by Boston, the main Toronto post office also figures. Though it no longer serves to carry Her Majesty's mail, the building still stands. Today, it's most famous as the building from which convicted criminal Conrad Black removed his famous 13 file boxes.

A fleeting reference to the book The Debatable Land Between This World and the Next (1871) introduced me to the Scottish-American social reformer and spiritualist Robert Dale Owen. Much of the rest of the Christmas Day was spent dipping in and out of his other work. In The Policy of Emancipation (1863) I found these words, reproduced from 23 September 1862 letter Owen sent to President Lincoln:
In days when the public safety is imminently threatened, and the fate of a nation may hang upon a single act, we owe frank speech, above all other men, to him who is highest in authority.
A wise man was Mr Owen.

Here's wishing us all a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Object and Access: A very attractive chapbook, letterpress printed in 10pt Baskerville on Reich Savoy paper. Issued in an edition of thirty-five, it was a Christmas gift from Three Bats' publisher Jason Byers.
* This image from the very poor microform copy of The Gerrard Street Mystery and Other Weird Tales available at the Internet Archive.

25 December 2017

Great War Christmas Verse from a Century Past

Lens, France
25 December 1917
A poem by Arthur Stringer from the December 1917 issue of Maclean's.

Christmas Bells in War Time 
                  From spire and tower, in silvery tune,
                       The chimes like birds take flight.
                  Where that golden boat, the moon,
                       Drifts slowly down the night.                     
                  Aloud, alert, alone they cease
                       And wake these midnight bells,
                  Proclaiming, through their calmer, Peace
                       Where Peace no longer dwells.                    
                  Yet chime by chime, like homing birds,
                       They float, soar up, recede,
                  A gust of old-time gladdening words
                       That back to Sorrow lead.                    
                  For as we listen, bell by bell,
                       They bring about us here
                  Our hotly dead who sleep so well
                       We dare not dream them near.                    
                  So be still blithe, O Bells, and gay.
                       Since through the old glad sound
                  Our dead come home this Christmas Day
                       From grave strewn Flanders' ground!

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18 December 2017

Yeah, I Know the Muffled Man

The Mystery of the Muffled Man
Max Braithwaite
Toronto: Little, Brown, 1962
160 pages

Fifty-five years ago, The Mystery of the Muffled Man vied with Joe Holliday's Dale of the Mounted in Hong Kong as a Christmas gift for young, bookish nephews. I doubt either won, but it would not surprise
me if the former achieved greater sales. After thirteen volumes, Holliday's Dale of the Mounted books were getting tired; I think it worth noting that the Hong Kong adventure would be his last. Braithwaite's, on the other hand, was part of the Secret Circle, a new and exciting series driven by a survey of booksellers, librarians, teachers and, most importantly, Scarborough school children and their parents.

Results in hand, General Editor Arthur Hammond, set about recruiting what was described in a November 1962 press release as "the best available Canadian authors."

It seems that most were too busy.

The Secret Circle stable was very small,  containing veteran workhorses like Robert Collins, Lawrence Earl, David Gammon, and Scott Young. Hammond himself contributed two of the series' twelve books, while dictating length, plot points, and endings for the others.

The extent of Hammond's influence on The Mystery of the Muffled Man might make for an interesting paper, but I'm not the one to write it. Braithwaite's first novel, preceding Why Shoot the Teacher by three years, this one is a bit of a bore. It begins with a chilly wait for a train in
a northern Ontario mining town. Young Chris Summerville has been sent by his parents to meet his cousin, equally-young Carol Fitzpatrick, who will be visiting while her parents spend the Christmas holidays in Bermuda. Eventually, the train arrives, but before Chris meets Carol there is an altercation that will hang over the remainder of the novel. Chris's overly-friendly dog, Arthur, runs to greet the new arrivals, only to be clubbed by a "muffled man" who had emerged from the train. Carol later tells her cousin of some suspicious behaviour the muffled man exhibited on the train: pouring over maps, avoiding RCMP officers, and pretending to have a broken left arm.

There's little more worth reporting, except to say that The Mystery of the Muffled Man is a novel bereft of mystery. The character who clubs a dog is obviously the villain. Why is he in the northern Ontario mining town? Well, the only thing we know of the area's history is that there had been a bank robbery ten years earlier, and that the money was never found.

By far the most interesting thing about the novel is how little the muffled man figures. Accompanied by friend Dumont LePage, Chris and Carol decide to go ice fishing, get lost in the woods, climb an old fire tower to get their bearings, and discover an abandoned gold mine. After a cave-in separates him from the rest of the group, Chris sees the muffled man digging to retrieve the stolen loot and empties the bullets from his unattended rifle. Chris's father and two RCMP officers show up in the nick of time, resulting in this climactic passage:
"You stay here with the boy," Constable Scott said to Mr Summerville. "We'll deal with him." And, holding their guns at the ready, the two uniformed men moved down the tunnel.
     In five minutes it was over. The muffled man, trapped by the wall of fallen stone, and with an empty gun in his hands, was quickly overpowered.
Before dismissing The Mystery of the Muffled Man as the weakest novel read this year, it's only fair to acknowledge that it wasn't written with me in mind. The survey that informed the Secret Circle was conducted before I was even born. What's more, I've never so much as considered living in Scarborough.

Trivia: Jack McClelland once encouraged a hard-up Norman Levine to contribute to the series.

Object: A compact hardcover with eight illustrations of varying quality by Joseph Rosenthal. My copy, not nearly so nice as the one pictured above, was purchased three years ago at a London book store. Price: 60¢

Access: WorldCat records a grand total of two Canadian libraries holding the Little, Brown edition. It also lists a 1981 Bantam-Seal paperback, and something titled The Muffled Man (Scarborough: Nelson, 1990).

Interestingly, no copies of the Bantam-Seal and Nelson editions are on offer from online booksellers. The original Little, Brown came and went with a single printing. Though not many copies are listed online, it is cheap. Very Good copies begin at US$8.00. At US$30.10, the most expensive is an inscribed copy offered by an Ontario bookseller.

Remarkably, the novel has been translated into Dutch (Avontuur in een goudmijn) and Swedish (Mysteriet med den maskerade mannen).

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11 December 2017

The Year's Best Books in Review – A.D. 2017; Featuring Three Books Deserving Resurrection

I finished reading my last book of the year yesterday afternoon; there is no way the I'll reach the end of the next before January. And so, the time has come for the annual recap of the best dusty books reviewed here and in Canadian Notes & Queries.

Twenty-seventeen was an unusual year for the Dusty Bookcase. Roughly twice as many books were covered in the first half as in the second. Promotion of the Dusty Bookcase book, The Dusty Bookcase: A Journey Through Canada's Forgotten, Neglected and Suppressed Writing, had something to do with it, but so too did other projects. The sad result is that just nineteen books were reviewed in 2017... and here I include that for the book I finished yesterday, which has yet to be written and posted. Either way, it is an all-time low.

Happily, despite the relatively small number – nineteen! – it was very easy to come up with this year's list of three books deserving a return to print:

Robert Barr

Barr stands with May Agnes Fleming and Grant Allen as one of our three most interesting Victorian novelists, and yet we ignore them all. This 1896 collection of twenty short stories delves into the darkest, deadliest areas of the soul.

Behind the Beyond
Stephen Leacock

First published in 1913, this is one of titles dropped in the New Canadian Library's bloody post-Ross purge. It stands amongst Professor Leacock's best collections. Interested publishers should consider the sixteen A.H. Fish illustrations featured in the first edition.

In Quest of Splendour
[Pierre le magnifique]
Roger Lemelin
[trans. Harry Lorin Binsse]

Lemelin's third novel, and very nearly his last, this pales beside the sales of the other three, but I think it is his best. Harry Binsse's 1955 translation enjoyed a single printing. Time has come for a new edition.

Three works reviewed this year are in print:

First published in 1902, the oldest is Ralph Connor's somewhat nostalgic, somewhat autobiographical novel Glengarry School Days. Last I looked, the 2009 New Canadian Library edition with introduction by John Lennox was still available from Penguin Random House. For how much longer, I wonder.

Shadow on the Hearth (1950) by Judith Merril is far from the best novel I read this year, but is recommended just the same. A Cold War nightmare, it has as much to do with the H-bomb as state secrecy and control. It features as one of three novels collected in Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, published by the New England Science Fiction Society Press.

Wives and Lovers (1954) is generally considered the last Margaret Millar non-Mystery... which isn't to say that there isn't mystery or that its characters don't do some very bad things. The very best novel I read this year, it can be found in The Master at Her Zenith, the third volume in Syndicate Books' Collected Millar.

I was involved in resurrecting only one book this year:

The Pyx
John Buell

The twelfth title in the Ricochet Books series, I consider this the best. A debut novel, first published in 1959 by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, it has drawn considerable praise through the decades. This new edition has an introduction by Sean Kelly.

Praise this year goes to Biblioasis' ReSet series. Now, I do recognize the optics – Biblioasis being the publisher of The Dusty Bookcase – but, really, is it not overdue? For six years now, roughly half the life of the press, it has been bringing back some of our most unjustly neglected titles. Early in the New Year, I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, the collected stories of Norman Levine, will be added to the series.

Speaking of the New Year, I don't think it's too early for resolutions. Here are mine:
  • I resolve to read more books by women (two-thirds of my 2017 reading were books by men);
  • I resolve to read more books by French language writers (In Quest of Splendour was the only one read in 2017);
  • I resolve to read and review more forgotten, neglected and suppressed books than I did this past year;
  • I resolve to continue kicking against the pricks. 

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08 December 2017

The Season's Best Books in Review – A.D. 1917: The String of Canadian Patriotism is Fingered

The "Globe 100" of its time, I've long been interested in the Globe & Mail's "Season's Best Books in Review," which ran annually in the early part of last century. Regulars may remember me writing about it here and here. After all these years, I thought I knew the feature, and so was taken aback by the opening paragraphs of the 1917 edition, published one hundred years ago today. Unlike others, it begins with a focus on children's books, as recommended by Miss Lillian Smith of Toronto's Reference Library. E. Boyd Smith's The Story of Noah's Ark tops the librarian's list, followed by new illustrated editions of Uncle Remus, The Black Arrow, Kidnapped, and The Prince and the Pauper.

The Great War, the subject of the three previous introductions, intrudes only briefly – "There are war books for boys, though Miss Smith declares that girls, too, read them constantly. One of the best of these is 'The Post of Honor' by Richard Wilson" – and then it's back to Pinocchio, The Real Mother Goose, and the "Mary Frances" books by Jane Sayre Fryer.

Lest anyone think Canadians were beginning to tire reading of the war, I point out that the most prominent element of the feature's first page is "The Dead," by early casualty Rupert Brooke.

Brooke was himself over two years dead by then. A more recent loss – May 7, 1917 – was Bernard Freeman Trotter, whom McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart positioned as "the Canadian Rupert Brooke." He wasn't, of course, which is not to say that his poems do not affect. Consider "A Kiss":

Several column inches are devoted to Trotter's lone book, Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and of Peace, which was published just in time for Christmas gift giving. It came in its own box.

Of the seventy-six books listed in the 1917 "Season's Best," twenty were about or directly inspired by the war... and of those, the one I'd most like to add to my collection is Crumps: The Plain Tale of a Canadian Who Went. A book I've put off buying for far too long, it was written and illustrated by editorial cartoonist turned soldier Louis Keene. He seems to have been a lucky man, but not lucky enough, returning from the war with a mangled right hand. Here's hoping he was a lefty.

Keene is one of ten Canadians whose books made the thirty-one title non-fiction list. An impressive showing, but it pales when compared to our poets:
The year 1917 has been fruitful of good verse. Poetry was given a marked impetus at the beginning of the year by the publication a few weeks before of John W. Garvin's "Canadian Poets" (McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart). This notable work, which as steadily made its way in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, was recently referred to by the editor of The Poetry Review, London England, as a "monumental collection," and as "the one permanent celebration of the jubilee of the British North American Provinces."
Such was the force unleashed by Garvin's "permanent celebration" (last printed in 1917) that Canadian poets took up all twelve spots, pushing aside Eliot's Prufrock, and other observations, Gurney's Severn and Somme, Sassoon's The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems, Yeats' The Wild Swan's at Coole, and posthumous collections by Alan Seeger and Edward Thomas. Lt Trotter's Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and of Peace is joined by:
In a Belgian Garden - F.O. Call
Marching Men - Helena Coleman
Irish Lyrics and Ballads by Rev James B. Dollard
The New Joan - Katherine Hale
Songs of Ukrania by Florence Randall Livesay
Idylls of the Dane - Irene Elder Morton
The Piper and the Reed - Robert Norwood
Songs from a Young Man's Land by Clive Phillips-Wolley
Carry On - Virna Sheard
The Shell - A.C. Stewart
Heart of the Hills - Albert Durrant Watson
The 1916 "Season's Best" had wonderful things to say about new talent Robert Norwood, and his praises continued to be sung in 1917, but it seems much of the love had moved on:
Of recent years no Canadian poet has made more solid progress than Albert D. Watson of Toronto. His 'Love and the Universe' (1913) established him among the leaders of the new school of Canadian verse; and 'Heart of the Hills', recently published, contains several poems of great originality and power. Of these, the most outstanding is 'To Worlds More Wide.' It is aglow with a divine spirit and message.

In best "Season's Best" tradition, Canadian fiction is given short shrift. The most that can be said is that the fiction list leads with an enthusiastic review of Ralph Connor's The Major:
There is in it every element required: noble men, lovely women, a villain or two; also the string of Canadian patriotism is fingered, not tone harped upon; and there is an attempt to show the influence on a man of his early training and environment.
Discussion of The Major is several paragraphs longer than any other novel. And why not? After all, Connor was then our biggest author, outselling even Gilbert Parker and L.M. Montgomery (whose Anne's House of Dreams failed to make the list).* Other novels considered to be of note include works by foreigners H.G. Wells, Mary Robert Rinehart, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Phyllis Bottome, J.C. Snaith, Stephen McKenna, William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer. I'm sorry to report that only one other Canadian novelist, Basil King, is so much as mentioned. The description of his latest, The High Heart, is brief: "A love story of a Canadian governess with the war as a background."

I'm not quite sold on The Major or The High Heart. This may have something to do with the 1916 "Season's Best" dismissal of Canadian fiction as stagnant and undeveloped. But then, under "Books for Juveniles," the feature's final section. I came upon a novel that sounds as exciting as anything by J.C. Snaith. I refer here to Frank Lillie Pollock's Northern Diamonds, described as "an exciting and realistic story of three Canadian boys – one a young medical student, a big Scotch-Canadian – who comes with a wondrous tale told him by a sick Indian of the discovery of diamonds found in the country north of the Abitibi River, a packet of which had been left in a certain cabin; the Indian leaving hurriedly on an alarm of smallpox, deserting the prospectors a like strait. The boys are, of course, fired with the idea of of resuming the precious stones. The account of the start with steel-shod toboggan, piled high with 'grub,' and on skates to fly the frozen waters; and carrying snowshoes for their many portages; the making of camps, the game shot, the perils of land and water; the fight with the ruffians who come to the cabin; an especially exciting chase after a deer by 'Jack Light'; the trapping of some black foxes; the fearful cold; all go to make up a capital boy's book for a holiday gift."

Indeed! This boy would like to receive a copy as a holiday gift.

But, I wonder, would Miss Smith approve?

Lillian Smith
* Other Canadian novels that did not make the list include Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (not surprising) and Up the Hill and Over by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay (somewhat surprising), both of which are reviewed in my new book.

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06 December 2017

'Halifax in Ruins' by Stanley Burton Fullerton

Verse for the one hundredth anniversary of the Halifax Explosion by Stanley Burton Fullerton of Amherst, Nova Scotia. A carpenter by trade, the poet enlisted the month before his forty-seventh birthday. He was serving overseas at the time of the disaster.

Halifax in Ruins

It was on the sixth of December,
     The Day I never forget,
When steaming up our harbour,
     Came that Fatal Ship.

Then came the sound of fire
     What ever can it be?
It is on board that fatal ship,
     Loaded with that dangerous T.N.T.

Then came the roars like thunder,
     What ever can it be
Some thought it was the Germans
     From far across the sea.

Then came a flash like lightning,
     That swept over our town,
And crumbled up our buildings,
     And played them to the ground.

Then came the sound of weeping,
     And goals from everywhere.
My God! It is so dreadful to see
     Our loved ones perish there.

Then thousands came from everywhere,
     To help those loved ones in despair,
My God, To see that dreadful sight,
     With bodies strewn along the streets that night.

Such sights that were seen, can never be told
     From the ones that were rescuing those poor wounded souls.
Weeping and crying came from everywhere,
     And mothers offered up to God their favourite prayer.

The lights went out, the streets were dark,
     And groans were heard from every part.
Helping hands came from every where,
     To rescue those who were suffering there.

They toiled all night till break of morn,
     And then came down that dreadful storm.
And willing hands that worked so fast,
     Rescued those poor souls at last.

Doctors and nurses came from everywhere,
     Dressed the wound of the sufferers there.
In homes of comfort they were placed,
     With smiling courtesies on their faces.

The undertakers came from everywhere,
     And washed and dressed those who perished there.
Into their coffins they were laid,
     And taken to the resting place.

The tale of the rescuers can hardly be told,
     Of the brave ones, who worked in the storm and the cold.
They worked night and day and never gave up,
     Till the bodies were taken from under the stuff.

Here's to Capt. Harrison, who was thoughtful in mind,
     He saw there was danger in the ship that was moored.
So he cut her adrift and steamed out of the bay,
     And sailed her to safety, where no danger lay.

Now we come to the Steamer, that was ruined that day.
     Her anchor stock was blown two and a half miles away
Even box cars were blown across the wide waves,
     And her big guns were carried 'way out in the bay.

Now she is gone and will sail never more,
     Her big iron plates are all over out shores.
The game will be remembered for long years to come,
     The great wreck and ruin and sadness she done.

Now our people are cared for in huts everywhere,
     And their homes that were ruined, will soon be repaired.
And they will  be placed in their homes once more,
     And dwell by the harbour in peace ever-more.

Thanks to our Government, who thoughtfully responded
     Sending the needed with every-thing wanted.
In money and food stuffs that hastily came,
     To those who were homeless and deserving of same.

Even Australia responded to the call,
     And sent us their gold from that far off land.
To those who were suffering from that dreadful day
     And helped to build up their homes that were blown away.

And even dear England with her troubles at hand,
     She sent us assistance to built up the land
We'll never forget what she has done,
    And always be true to her. As true as the Sun.

Here's to the Star Spangles Banner that waves in the breeze,
     That stands for Liberty, over land and seas.
For the help they gave  in our time of need,
     And binds fighter the friendship for so noble a deed.

When the word was flashed across the line.
     That a helping and was needed.
How nobly the call was answered,
     From those true friends across the seas.

They sent us relief in abundance,
     It came from every-where.
To comfort our homeless loved ones.
     That were so sadly in despair.

Half of our town is lying in ruins,
     And our buildings are badly smashed.
But President Wilson says to build them up again
     And they will send over the cash.

Here's to that good old Union Jack,
     And to the Allies that are it'd defenders.
We thank the Star Spangled Banner
     For the help that they rendered.

The Union Jack and Stars and Stripes,
     I pray will always wave together,
God bless them for evermore,
     And our Maple Leaf Forever.

"Halifax in Ruin" appeared in the Fullerton's sixteen-page chapbook Poems (1918). It can be read in its entirety here, through the Internet Archive.

Note: "SGT. S.B. FULLERTON" is incorrect; in fact, the poet never rose above the rank of private. Let's just say it was a printer's error.

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