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 M├Ądchens’ (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.