Monday, 17 October 2011

A Romance of the Sea-Serpent: A Review

A fine and funny review of the Whisky Priest edtion of Eugene Batchelder's  A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or the Icthyosaurus. Stolen from Amazon, (buy the book here or here, or here).

From William Mahoney:

5 Stars: The Critics are Wrong

The description for this book cites from "Beneath the American Renaissance" by David S. Reynolds. Reynolds, like many others, considers "Moby Dick" a great American novel. He discusses Batchelder's work in passing. He sees this as one of many books which told tales of sea-monsters, and thus potentially influenced Melville. Unfortunately, his appreciation of great literature is clearly distorted: "A Romance of the Sea-Serpent" is by far the better work. Consider:

*Melville writes in everyday prose. Batchelder is a poet. Nearly every paragraph in this masterpiece contains at least one rhyme. These aren't forced, either. None of his contemporaries could pull of a clause that bests "out on the sea, out on the sea, the fleet is dashing merrily!" The best part of his verse is the way he mixes it up. The various rhyme structures - ABAB, AABB, ABCABC - come at you unexpectedly. They're often placed in the middle of paragraphs written in standard prose. Batchelder seems to be making a statement about the unpredictability of life: you never know what his next rhyme will be, just like you never know when a sea monster might walk onto land and eat you from behind.

*Romance: Females are only mentioned in passing in Moby Dick. Most of the time that they come up, it's in regards to how awful their love life is: Ahab or some other sailor has abandoned them for a life on the sea. This work includes well-rounded women doing all the things typical women do: they have strapping young lads sing for them, they attend balls, and they get eaten by sea monsters.

*If romance isn't your thing, don't worry. This book is too powerful for one genre, and can easily be described as an action tale as well. In Moby Dick, one needs to wait over 200,000 words before the sea monster starts tossing sailors around. Here, you don't even have to wait 10 pages, and the body count never stops adding up.

*The difference in ferocity is probably due to this monster's superiority over the white whale. Moby Dick is 100 feet at most. His Snakeship is over 600. He is the king of the sea - other sea-serpents, sharks, kraken, and whales (presumably white one as well) - do his bidding. At one point, he sics 40 serpents on one yacht. Also, I don't believe Moby Dick could walk on land or talk to people, and was certainly never offered a Harvard degree.

*Speaking of degrees, Melville's highest level of education was high school. Batchelder, like his monster, graduated Harvard. Ergo, Batchelder is clearly smarter and a better writer. This shows in passages possessing incredible metaphors and puns, such as this one, when a character doesn't feel like singing: "I feel, like the indigo, somewhat blue, but Sue will sing without much suing."

*"Call me Ishmael." I'm pretty sure I've been offered similar introductions on Greyhounds before. Batchelder opens up with the following, adequately setting up the thrillfest to follow: "unless you've strong nerves, just throw down the book, and never dare in its pages to look."

In short, don't waste your money or time on the overrated Moby Dick.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Arnold Bennett: A Great Man

Finally, a new book!

Arnold Bennett was extraordinarily prolific, which has probably one of the reasons he's no longer seen as the giant of literature he once was. But that's not entirely fair, because his best books really are great. He could also be very funny, and as someone who knew the Victorian and Edwardian literary worlds intimately, he was ideally placed to write A Great Man, a wonderful satire on writers and publishing.

It's a satire that still holds true for today: the financial and artistic wranglings between writers, publishers and agents; the sheer mass of books being produced every day; literary fiction versus commercial fiction... it's all there.

The hero, a sentimental novelist who views himself as the enemy of  what he calls 'the Stream of Trashy Novels Constantly Poured Forth by the Press', is also the owner of a delicate digestive system. Here, in an extract that will give you an idea of the style of the novel, is perhaps the finest description of an attack of vomiting ever given in an Edwardian novel:

It proved to be the worst dyspeptic visitation that Henry had ever had. It was not a mere ‘attack’—it was a revolution, beginning with slight insurrections, but culminating in universal upheaval, the overthrowing of dynasties, the establishment of committees of public safety, and a reign of terror. As a series of phenomena it was immense, variegated, and splendid, and was remembered for months afterwards.

A Great Man can be viewed and bought here.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


I know it's been a long time, but I have been working away behind the scenes at producing the next set of Whisky Priest Books. Coming soon... the long-promised science-fiction of Anthony Trollope! The autobiographical writings of Ambrose Bierce! The piss-take of Victorian literature by Arnold Bennett! And more...

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Karin Michaëlis: The Dangerous Age

I first came across mention of this Danish masterpiece in 500 Great Books by Women, one of those big round-ups of somewhat neglected literature that have made me haemorrhage money in second-hand bookshops. Critic Erica Bauermeister had this to say: “At forty-two, approaching that ‘dangerous age’ and determined to eliminate the hypocrisy in her life, Elsie divorces her husband, leaves behind a young potential lover, and retreats to an isolated villa on an island... First published in 1910, [this] is still a shockingly forthright and provocative book."

And it's a bloody good one, too: one of those freakishly modern Scandinavian novels (see also Amalie Skram, Hjalmar Söderberg and the like). Elsie's bitterly honest letters to friends, her ex-husband, and to a potential lover, and her diary entries recording her tumultuous thoughts, her encounters with servants and her failing plans, are quite compelling.

For the cover I used an evocative photo by Olof Werngren: this picture of a woman about to plunge naked into the cold Scandinavian seas reminded me very strongly of Elsie and the evening bathing she does off the shore of her isolated island.

You can get the book at Lulu, Amazon UK and Amazon US (ISBN 978-1445793566). And thus Whisky Priest Scandinavia is off the ground!

And coming soon from Whisky Priest: Anthony Trollope's forgotten science-fiction novel...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Kálmán Mikszáth: Saint Peter's Umbrella

I'm very pleased to announce the first in an irregular but ongoing series of Hungarian classic revivals at Whisky Priest: Kálmán Mikszáth's Saint Peter's Umbrella.

More than a century after his death, Kálmán Mikszáth remains one of Hungary’s most popular writers, but is almost unknown in English translation. Saint Peter’s Umbrella is the most successful and popular of his earlier novels: a tale of two umbrellas—one containing a family fortune hidden in the handle, and the other a venerated relic said to have been used by Saint Peter to protect an abandoned young girl. Or maybe they're the same umbrella? But how could that be?

From Lóránt Czigány's A History of Hungarian Literature (an invaluable companion, originally published by Oxford University Press, but now available online in its entirety here):

[Mikszáth] never missed the latent potential of a good story which fired his imagination ... Of his early novels, St. Peter’s Umbrella (1895) was the most popular and perhaps the best. (Theodore Roosevelt was said to have admired the novel, and visited Mikszáth during his European trip in 1910 solely to express his admiration.) The novel illustrated well the working of Mikszáth’s craft. The umbrella of the title may have been the subject of an anecdote in Upper Hungary, in which it was claimed to have a supernatural origin – St. Peter himself left it behind to protect an abandoned little girl. Thus the local peasants held the object in great veneration. The main line of the story – concerning the treasure-hunt of Gyuri Wibra, whose eccentric father put his fortune in an open bank-draft and hid it in the handle of an umbrella – is welded to the anecdote concerning the ‘celestial umbrella’. The complications arising out of the search for the umbrella provide Mikszáth with an opportunity to work on two different levels – devising an exciting hunt for the inheritance, and at the same time observing the significance, in terms of mass-psychology, of a seemingly worthless object ... Mikszáth excels in creating the background: his countryside is full of well-observed characters, drawn with warm humour.

The cover makes use of an image from an old postcard (the man with the brolley and the suitcase), as well as scans of Hungarian currency from the time of the book.

Get the book at Lulu, Amazon UK or Amazon US. Amazon being amazon, their database shits bricks at the accent marks, rendering him as K·lm·n Miksz·th.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


For ease of browsing, the first Whisky Priest catalogue is now available:

Whisky Priest Catalogue 01

Download it here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Jerome K Jerome: On the Stage-And Off & Stage-Land

Jerome K Jerome is one of the great English humourists, best known for Three Men in a Boat and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. He wrote many novels, stories, essays and plays; the latter grew from his youthful determination to be an actor. For three years he slaved at the lowest rung of the acting world, in a threadbare repertory company in England. Success was elusive, though he encountered numerous peculiar characters, and fell victim to almost every form of scam and con going in the theatrical world.

Fortunately for his readers, in 1885 he was able to turn this experience into a book, On the Stage--And Off, a very funny memoir of these miserable years. It was his first successful book. Several years later, he followed it with Stage-Land, a hilarious guide to the clichés of late-Victorian theatre, with cynical commentary on all of the character types and situations that plagued most plays of the era.

The books can be read online here and here, or you can buy the shiny new Whisky Priest edition, containing both books, here.

Buy this book on Lulu.

The cover of this edition makes use of photos from old turn-of-the-century theatrical magazines. The main photo, of the actors on stage, seemed apt since it looks like a performance of an extremely muddled, ill-conceived play. The Whisky Priest edition also includes the original Stage-Land illustrations, by J. Bernard Partridge. Click for bigger versions.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Ossip Schubin: Our Own Set

The Neglected Books Page is a great site: a wonderful resource for people looking to spend all of their money on out-of-print and forgotten books. It's also where I first learned of Ossip Schubin (real name Aloisia Kirschner), a Prague-born Austrian writer whose Our Own Set is a wonderful social comedy somewhere in the area between Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and early Henry James, but refracted through a prism of decaying, self-absorbed Austrian aristocracy, and set in Rome in 1870. The review at Neglected Books is excellent, but it does give away the end of the story. The book itself is available at the Internet Archive in Clara Bell's fine translation, and it is this version of the text which I used for the new Whisky priest edition.

I was struck by a descriptive passage halfway through the novel, setting the scene for an important plot development. It describes Monte Pincio, where the Austrian exiles and tourists mingle with locals and travellers from other countries.

The scene is now the Pincio — between five and six in the afternoon, the hour when the band plays every day on the great terrace, while the crowd collects to watch the sun set behind St. Peter's. The reflection of the glow gilds the gravel, glints from the lace on the uniforms and the brass instruments, and throws golden sparks on the water in the wide basin behind the bandstand. ... A special set of visitors haunt the shady side of the Pincio; not the fashionable world: governesses and nurses with their charges, and priests ... Separated from these only by a leafy screen the beauty and fashion of Rome drive up and down — the residents in handsome private carriages, the foreigners in hired vehicles of varying degrees of respectability, or even in the humble, one-horse, hackney cab. The crowd grows denser every minute as the stream of Roman rank and wealth swells along the Via Borghese, across the Piazza del Popolo, and up the hill.

This image represented wonderfully by a pair of paintings by American artist Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) of Monte Pincio, teeming with tourists and sightseers. Click for bigger versions.

I wanted to use a detail from the first of these for Our Own Set's cover. As for the font, something with lovely firm, round Os was needed--a medium weight of ITC Avant Garde Gothic.

 Our Own Set is available now at Lulu, and soon from Amazon. More Ossip Schubin titles are planned.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Whisky Priest at the Constant Conversation

The fine blog of the literary magazine The Quarterly Conversation has an interview about Whisky Priest Books which explains some of the thinking behind the creation of the books, as well as details on how you, too, can become a penurious POD publisher. Read it here.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Fredric Brown: The Fabulous Clipjoint

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was one of the great pulp writers, of both crime and science-fiction. The copyright status of his work is a confusing mess, depending on who published what and when. Some of his best work, though, has fallen into the public domain, and that includes The Fabulous Clipjoint, the first Ed and Am Hunter novel about an uncle/nephew private eye team. You can find free online versions of the book here and here, among other places.

For the cover, I wanted to use something appropriately pulpy and dramatic. Old crime comics seemed a good place to start (and if you're looking for something along those lines, the huge (if sometimes erratic) archive of public domain comics at the Digital Comic Museum is a good place to start).

Some characteristically dynamic, pulpy and primitive comic pages from 1940s crime comics
A much-enlarged detail from a comics panel

I took panels from three different comics, rearranged and fiddled with them until they looked as though they shared the same source, and then combined them into a page that seems to show the murder that launches the book's plot. For the author and title I wanted something that could have been a sign from an old film noir bar sign.

If you get hooked on Brown, you're in luck--he was pretty prolific, and a number of his books (both public domain and otherwise) are available in print and online. Other gateway drugs to his crime fiction might be Black Mask's edition of The Screaming Mimi, or Centipede Press's Here Comes a Candle.

For his science-fiction, try the excellent What Mad Universe, which plays cleverly with the conventions of pulp SF, which Brown knew inside-out, by having its hero accidentally transported into a parallel universe in which those same conventions are laws. It doesn't seem to be in print, but you can track down one of the old pulp editions pretty cheaply, and they're worth it for the cover art. (Because of said laws, all women in this parallel universe wear clothes like these...)

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The first Whisky Priest books

There are a number of books I want to read which are either completely out of print, or else only available in utterly hideous print-on-demand editions with vile typography and crappy covers. A number of these books are out of copyright, and so potentially open to anyone to make their own editions (hence the vile/crappy versions described above). Having experimented with print-on-demand technology, I thought I'd have a go at creating a couple of physical books myself. It was lots of fun, and I got hooked. The result is Whisky Priest Books: out-of-copyright books I want copies of, and which, with any luck, other people might want to read as well.

I started with Fitz-James O'Brien. An Irish-born poet and journalist who was killed fighting for the North in the American Civil War, he was also responsible for a notable series of early science-fiction and supernatural short stories. One or two of these occasionally crop up in themed anthologies, but there was no decent collection of his work available. So I made one. The title story, The Diamond Lens, is probably his best-known. In it, a man who has built a super-powerful microscope discovers an entire miniature world inside a water drop, including a beautiful (but microscopic) naked woman, with whom he falls in love. The cover pretty much suggested itself (click for bigger versions of all cover images).

My other starting book was as pretty much as odd as literary oddities get. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Melville's Moby-Dick, I was reading some essays about the book. In one, by David S. Reynolds, I came across this intriguing sentence: "The largest monster in antebellum literature was the kraken depicted in Eugene Batchelder’s Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or The Ichthyosaurus, a bizarre narrative poem about a sea serpent that terrorizes the coast of Massachusetts, destroys a huge ship in mid-ocean, repasts on human remains gruesomely with sharks and whales, attends a Harvard commencement (where he has been asked to speak), [and] shocks partygoers by appearing at a Newport ball...”

The audience for an 1850 book-length Monty Python-style doggerel poem about a socially aspirant sea serpent is probably just me, and it would be honestly impossible to press this on anyone as a great (or even good) work of literature, but I'm glad to have read it. Such an overblown book seemed to need a relatively minimalist cover, so I used a detail from one of the book's original illustrations.

Book three was a collection of the Edith Wharton novellas and stories I didn't already have in my numerous collections of her shorter works. A lush John White Alexander painting ('Repose', from 1895) seemed right for this.

At this point I became pretty bored with the blue rectangular author/title box, and decided to chuck it in. This was a good idea, as it gives a lot more flexibility in cover design.

Lord Dunsany (or Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) is still in print today, known for his remarkable fantasy stories. His other work is less well known, and Tales of War was particularly interesting. Drawing on his own WWI experiences, its protagonists include numerous soldiers, Kaiser Wilhelm II (the theory is advanced that he started the war to compensate for his ludicrous moustache) and a talking gorilla.

Two other WWI novels also caught my eye: Contemptible by 'Casualty' (Arnold Gyde), a straightforward, thinly fictionalised version of his own fighting experience in France, and A. P. Herbert's The Secret Battle, which was one of the first novels to look at shell-shock and the odiousness of capital punishment for desertion and cowardice in battle.

This cover makes use of 'Battle-Scarred Sentinels', one of the many frankly astonishing photos of Australian war photographer Frank Hurley

This cover features an adapted version of a pencil sketch by  Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers

Storm Jameson was once widely popular, but her work is now almost entirely (and unfairly) forgotten. My favourite of her novels is In the Second Year, first published in 1936, and describing a Britain where the Fascists had taken government. For this cover I lifted a frame from an old newsreel of a British Union of Fascists rally.

French novelist Henri Barbusse's early novel Inferno, from 1908, is a neglected classic of existentialism and voyeurism, if that's your cup of tea: a near stream-of-consciousness narrative from the point of view of a man peering through a gap in his boarding-house room wall at the goings-on in the neighbouring room. The oppressive ranting of the text and the peering eye suggested a design for this one (click for a better view--the text doesn't display well at the smaller size).

As you can see, it's hard to stop once you start down this self-publishing path. Who else do we have? How about Leonard Merrick, as championed at The Neglected Books page here and here?

This tale of a writer whose first book is hugely successful, but who then starts to bomb in a big way, needed a thoroughly fucked-up typewriter...

..while this book, much of which concerns an aspiring actress and her attempts to secure work, seemed to need this portrait from an old theatrical poster.

Or Grant Allen, a number of whose other books I've really loved, and whose Michael's Crag (about a man who, after a blow to the head, becomes convinced he's the archangel Michael) was discussed at The Dusty Bookcase?

Here you can see the whole cover, front and back. The image is one of the book's 200+ silhouette illustrations,  by Francis and Alec Carruthers Gold
Or the wonderful Stefan Zweig, whose work has been resurrected recently by the brilliant NYRB and Pushkin Press? This volume contains two of his novellas unavailable elsewhere, along with his monograph on poet Paul Verlaine.

I couldn't resist Egon Schiele for this: it's his hypnotic 'Sitzende Frau mit hochgezogenem Knie' (1917) 
Or French novelist Alphonse Daudet, whose cynically funny collection of stories about the sex war and the artistic temperament, Artists' Wives, deserves rediscovery?

The cover uses 'Model writing postcards' (1906) by Carl Larsson

Or Grete Lanier's diary of her schoolgirlhood in early 20th-Century Vienna, originally published by Sigmund Freud?

This cover uses a detail from ‘Profilbildnis eines Mädchens’ (1897) by Koloman Moser, a number of whose paintings capture Viennese adolescence rather intriguingly
There are other titles in preparation, and I'm thoroughly enjoying working on them. I can recommend this process to anyone who wants to read an old book and doesn't want to read it on a screen. The POD publisher I use is Lulu, mainly because they have an Australian press, and so getting copies of my own books doesn't cost me an arm and a leg in postage. Their price-setting system is a little irritating--once a book crosses 300-odd pages  in size, it seems to get dramatically more expensive--but I've set every book's price as low as I can (profit on one of these books bought from Amazon averages around 70-80 cents).

So, that's the start of Whisky Priest Books. See some of them at Amazon US, Amazon UK, or all of them at the Whisky Prist Lulu shop.