27 January 2023

Television Man is Crazy

The one hundred and twelfth issue of Canadian Notes & Queries arrived in our rural mailbox yesterday afternoon. A beautiful thing, wrapped in a cover by Seth, I've been dipping in and out. I read Michael Holmes' remembrance of Steven Heighton first.

It was followed by Ken Norris's interview with Bruce Whiteman.

This evening, I'll be reading 'My Year of Mycorrhizal Thinking' by Ariel Gordon, whose daughter shares something with my own as a fan of Hannibal. Ariel, her daughter, and mine, will appreciate this photo taken in our kitchen not eight days ago.

This issue's Dusty Bookcase column focuses on Jeann Beattie's Behold the Hour (1959), which in my opinion ranks with Ralph Allen's The Chartered Libertine (1954) as one of the two best novels set early days of Canadian television.  

I'm not aware of a third.

Northrop Frye praised Allen's novel. Do I praise Beattie's?

Read and find out! Subscriptions can be purchased through this link.

Other contributors to this issue include:
Carolyn Bennett
James Cairns
Andreae Callana
Preeti Kaur Dhaliwai
Stephen Fowler
Susan Glickman
Alex Good
Brett Josef Griubisic
Graeme Hunter
Kate Kennedy
Rohan Maitzen
Darcy Mason
David Mason
Roderock Moody-Corbett
Shani Mootoo
Ian Clay Sewall
Rudrapiya Rathmore
Richard Sanger
Natalie Southworth
Kevin Sprout
Did I mention subscriptions can be purchased through this link?

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16 January 2023

James de Mille's Antarctic Death Cult

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder
[James de Mille]
New York: Harper & Bros, 1888
306 pages

Forty years ago this month, I sat on a beige fibreglass seat to begin my first course in Canadian literature. An evening class, it took place twice-weekly on the third-floor of Concordia's Norris Building. I was a young man back then, and had just enough energy after eight-hour shifts at Sam the Record Man.

The professor, John R. Sorfleet, assigned four novels:

James de Mille - A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888)
Charles G.D. Roberts - The Heart of the Ancient Wood (1900)
Thomas H. Raddall - The Nymph and the Lamp (1950)
Brian Moore - The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960)

These were covered in chronological order. I liked each more than the last. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is the only title I would've wholeheartedly recommended, which is not to suggest that I didn't find something of interest in the others.

The earliest, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, intrigued because it overlapped with the lost world fantasies I'd read in adolescence. Here I cast my mind back to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar, my parents' copy of James Hilton's Lost Horizon, and of course, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

De Mille's novel begins aboard the yacht Falcon, property of lethargic Lord Featherstone. The poor man has tired of England and so invites three similarly bored gentlemen of privilege to accompany him on a winter cruise. February finds Featherstone and guests at sea somewhere east of the Medeira Islands, where they come across the titular cylinder bobbing in becalmed waters. Half-hearted attempts are made at opening the thing, until Melick, the most energetic of the quartet, appears with an axe.

As might be expected – the title is a bit of a spoiler – a strange manuscript is found within. Its author presents himself as Adam More, an Englishman who, having been carried by "a series of incredible events to a land from which escape is as impossible as from the grave," sent forth the container "in the hope that the ocean currents may bear it within the reach of civilized man."

More would have every right to feel disappointed.

Featherstone and company, while civilized, are not the best civilization has to offer. In the days following the discovery, they lounge about the Falcon taking turns reading the manuscript aloud, commenting on the text, and speculating as to its veracity.

More writes that he was a mate on the Trevelyan, a ship chartered by the British Government to transport convicts to Van Dieman's Land. This in itself sounds fascinating, but he skips by it all to begin with the return voyage. Inclement weather forces the Trevelyan south into uncharted waters "within fifteen hundred miles of the South Pole, and far within that impenetrable icy barrier which, in 1773, had arrested the progress of Captain Cook."

No one aboard the Trevelyan is particularly concerned – the sea is calm and the skies clear – and no objections are raised when More and fellow crew member Agnew take a boat to hunt seals. Fate intervenes when the weather suddenly turns. In something of a panic, the pair make for their ship, but efforts prove no match for the sea. They are at its mercy, resigned to drifting with the current, expecting slow death. And yet, they do find land, "a vast and drear accumulation of lava blocks of every imaginable shape, without a trace of vegetation—uninhabited, uninhabitable." A corpse lies not far from the shore:
The clothes were those of a European and a sailor; the frame was emaciated and dried up, till it looked like a skeleton; the face was blackened and all withered, and the bony hands were clinched tight. It was evidently some sailor who had suffered shipwreck in these frightful solitudes, and had drifted here to starve to death in this appalling wilderness. It was a sight which seemed ominous of our own fate, and Agnew’s boasted hope, which had so long upheld him, now sank down into a despair as deep as my own. What room was there now for hope, or how could we expect any other fate than this?
More and Agnew provide a Christian burial and return to their boat hoping, but not expecting, to be carried to a better place. Whether they find one is a matter of opinion. The pair pass through a channel that appears to have been formed by two active volcanoes, after which they encounter humans More describes as "animated mummies." They seem nice, until they reveal themselves as cannibals. Hungry eyes are cast on Agnew. He's killed and More escapes.  

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is not a Hollow Earth novel, though inattentive readers have described it as such. More's boat enters a sea within a massive cavern, where he encounters a monster of some sort and fires a shot to scare it off.

The boat continues to drift, emerging on a greater open sea. It's at this point – 53 pages in – that the real adventure begins.

Here More encounters the Kosekin who, despite their small stature, appear much healthier than the animated mummies who killed and consumed his friend Agnew. They're also extremely generous, ever eager to give More whatever his heart desires. He is soon introduced to Almah, a fair beauty who, like himself, is not of their kind.

Through Almah, More learns the language, customs, and culture of the Kosekin and their topsy-turvy polar world. They are a people who crave darkness and shun light. Self-sacrifice serves as the shell surrounding their core belief, so that they look to rid themselves of wealth and influence. The least is the most venerated. The local Kohen, whom More comes to know best of the Kosekin, shares a sad story:
"I was born," said he, "in the most enviable of positions. My father and mother were among the poorest in the land. Both died when I was a child, and I never saw them. I grew up in the open fields and public caverns, along with the most esteemed paupers. But, unfortunately for me, there was something wanting in my natural disposition. I loved death, of course, and poverty, too, very strongly; but I did not have that eager and energetic passion which is so desirable, nor was I watchful enough over my blessed estate of poverty. Surrounded as I was by those who were only too ready to take advantage of my ignorance or want of vigilance, I soon fell into evil ways, and gradually, in spite of myself, I found wealth pouring in upon me. Designing men succeeded in winning my consent to receive their possessions; and so I gradually fell away from that lofty position in which I was born. I grew richer and richer. My friends warned me, but in vain. I was too weak to resist; in fact, I lacked moral fibre, and had never learned how to say 'No.' So I went on, descending lower and lower in the scale of being. I became a capitalist, an Athon, a general officer, and finally Kohen."
Again, 'tis sad, but the Kohen's own weakness is to blame. He displays greater strength when confronting his own mortality. Like all Kosekin, the Kohen longs for the day when his life will end. His people refer  to Death as the "King of Joy." Almah does her best to explain to a disbelieving More:
"Here," said she, "no one understands what it is to fear death. They all love it and long for it; but everyone wishes above all to die for others. This is their highest blessing. To die a natural death in bed is avoided if possible."
The Kohen tells the story of an Athon who had led a failed attack on a creature in which all were killed save himself. For this, he was honoured: 
“Is it not the same with you? Have you not told me incredible things about your people, among which there were a few that seemed natural and intelligible? Among these was your system of honoring above all men those who procure the death of the largest number. You, with your pretended fear of death, wish to meet it in battle as eagerly as we do, and your most renowned men are those who have sent most to death.”
A Strange Manuscript in a Copper Cylinder shares something with Burroughs in that adventure, prehistoric beasts, and a love interest figure. What sets it apart is the quality of writing; De Mille's is by far the superior. No doubt some readers – my twelve-year-old self would've been one – will be irked by Lord Featherstone and his three guests, who see in More's manuscript an opportunity to philosophize and expound theories on linguistics, geography, and palaeontology. Oxenden, the quietest of the group, speaks up providing the most fascinating passages in remarking on the similarities in Kosekin, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu beliefs.

Melick alone expresses skepticism in More's story, dismissing the manuscript as a bad romance: "This writer is tawdry; he has the worst vices of the sensational school – he shows everywhere marks of haste, gross carelessness and universal feebleness." Unflattering comparisons to DeFoe and Swift are drawn.

A Strange Manuscript in a Copper Cylinder demonstrates none of the things Melick describes. Forty years later, I have no hesitation in recommending the novel; it is richer and more rewarding than I remembered.

Wish I'd known what my thoughts were on first reading. There may be a paper written for Prof Sorfleet's class in the crawlspace beneath our living room.

Object and Access: All evidence suggests that A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was written in the 1865 and 1866. It was first published posthumously and anonymously in the pages of Harper's Weekly (7 Jan 1888 - 12 May 1888). My copy, a first edition, features nineteen plates by American Gilbert Gaul. The copy I read as a student was #68 in the New Canadian Library (1969). I still have it today, along with the Carleton University Press Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts edition (1986). Neither was consulted in writing this review, but only because they're in that damn crawlspace.

The NCL edition is out of print, but the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts edition remains available, now through McGill-Queen's University Press. It has since been joined by another scholarly edition from Broadview Press (2011).

Used copies of are easily found online. Prices for the Harper & Bros first edition range between US$65 and US$400. Condition is a factor, but not as much as one might assume. The 1888 Chatto & Windus British first (below) tends to be a bit more dear.

Translations are few and relatively recent: Italian (Lo strano manoscritto trovato in un cilindro di rame; 2015) and Hindi ( एक तांबा सिलेंडर में पाया एक अजीब पांडुलिपि, 2019).

03 January 2023

A Forgotten Mystery; a Shattered Dream

The Twenty-First Burr
Victor Lauriston
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1922
292 pages

Victor Lauriston was born William Edward Park on 16 October 1881 in the hamlet of Fletcher, not far from Chatham, Ontario. As an adult, he changed his name because he thought Park too plain for a writer. This was in 1918, sometime between the sixth and seventh rewrite of The Twenty-First Burr.

The Twenty-first Burr is a mystery novel populated in part by characters with assumed names and hidden identities. It begins with twenty-year-old Laura Winright's rushed return to North America after two years touring Europe. I've read enough old novels to know that such a young lady would not have been been permitted to go off alone to the Old World. That Laura did so – and in the midst the Great War – is a mystery left unexplained and unexplored.

"Was she a spy?" asks my wife.

Good question.

Our heroine's haste has everything to do with a telegram sent by her father, Detroit department store baron Adam Winright. Laura never lived in the Motor City, rather she was raised at the family mansion, Castle Sunset, at Maitland Port (read: Goderich, Ontario) on the shore of Lake Huron. 

Laura's return takes nearly everyone by surprise, most of all George Annisford, her betrothed. Not only does he fail to meet her ship as it docks in New York, he scolds her in a wordy telegram:
Oh, see here, chick! You've come down on us like the wolf on the fold. We haven't time to send out for crackers and cheese. Of course your father is just fine and dandy. Why shouldn't he be?
But Adam Winright is not fine and dandy. By the time Laura reaches Maitland Port, her father is dead.

Laura is convinced he was murdered, but brother Tom, her lone sibling, isn't convinced. What's certain is that Adam Winright was being blackmailed by a man signing himself "Andrew Webster." Brother Tom sends for Detroit private detective Harry Burnville to get to the bottom of it all.

Going further into the story risks doing the mystery a disservice, but only because plot is not its strong point. What makes The Twenty-First Burr worth reading are its characters. George, goodnatured and ever-positive, hides a fragile heart. Mrs MacTurk, the Winright's Scotch housekeeper, is a sour old bird who obsesses over apparitions and keeps a logbook of her sightings. My favourite character is the widow Villard, who sniffs in contempt at the memory of a young actress who it turns out... Ah, but that would be spoiling things.

Contemporary reviews invariably focus on Glory Adair, a nurse and amateur sleuth who relies on palmistry in bettering Burnville, her professional rival .

The Twenty-First Burr certainly has its flaws. Any speculation that Laura may have been a spy is quickly put to rest by her forgetfulness, which serves no purpose other than to slow the plot. This reader was amused by the amount time lost to rail travel, all of which could have been avoided if only Lauriston hadn't chosen to have the principle players live so far apart.

No doubt some weaknesses have to do with all those drafts. According to the author, the first was written in 1905, nine years before fighting broke out in Europe. The conflict is rarely mentioned, and then only in passing; it's effect on the home front is nonexistent. This reader counted four able-bodied young men, not one of whom is fighting overseas. And then we have the conclusion, in which Glory, who solves Adam Winright's murder, shares observations and clues not found elsewhere in the novel.

The Twenty-first Burr is anything but a fair-play mystery, but I don't hold a grudge. The characters are captivating and the locations are so uncommon as to be interesting. Mystery lovers living in Grimsby will be flattered by descriptions of their town as it was one hundred years ago: "the stone road, the fine country homes, the peach orchards, rank on rank of green trees orderly as soldiers on parade."

The worst thing about The Twenty-First Burr is that it shows such promise, yet was Lauriston's only mystery. McClelland & Stewart used the plates from George H. Doran's American edition. Neither publisher went back for a second printing.

Lauriston spent his royalties on buying those same plates. He hoped that they would one day be used in returning the novel to print. An author's fantasy, it ended in 1941 when they were sold for use in the war effort.

The Windsor Daily Star, 21 August 1941

The accompanying article – 'Chatham Writer's Dream Shattered After 19 Years' – begins:

Sale of 700 pounds of lead and copper plates in New Britain, Connecticut, recently, put an end to a dream that has lived in the persevering mind of Victor Lauriston, Chatham novelist, ever since he sold his first book 19 years ago. He had hoped sometime to use the plates for a reprint of the book, "The Twenty First Burr," [sic] a detective story.
     Metal in the plates will be melted to help win the war. Owing to exchange regulations, proceeds of the sale will go to pay a 16 years' storage bill. 
Lauriston lived well into old age, dying two days after his ninety-second birthday, yet he wrote only one more novel. A roman à clef titled Inglorious Milton, according to the Border Cities Star (20 October 1934), it "set every tongue in Chatham wagging." Lauriston's papers hold the manuscript, along with numerous letters of rejection. The novel was finally published by the Tiny Tree Club, a branch (sorry) of Chatham's literary society. I've not read it, but should. The Border City Star article compares it to Joyce's Ulysses.

I can only assume society members are portrayed in a flattering light.

Object: Light brown boards with black impressing. The jacket illustration is by Margaret Freeman. My copy once belonged to a woman named Olive Shanks.

At the time of the 1921 census, Miss Shanks, then age 29, lived with her parents (John and Hattie) and siblings (Bessie and Mark) at 146 Park Street, Chatham, Ontario.

146 Park Street, Chatham, Ontario
November 2020

In 2019, her copy ended up in my home, having been purchased from bookseller David Mason. Price: $90.00.  

Access: The Twenty-First Burr was published by Doran in the United States and in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. Neither edition enjoyed a second printing. As of this writing, two copies are listed for sale online, both from London booksellers: London, Ontario's Attic Books offers a jacketless copy of the Doran edition at US$35.00; London, England's Any Amount of Books is asking £30.00 for its jacketless Doran. The McClelland and Stewart edition is nowhere in sight. 

Sixteen of our academic libraries hold copies of one edition or the other, as does Library and Archives Canada.

The Twenty-First Burr can be read online here thanks to the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive.