Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BOOK: "Strange Attractor Journal One"

Mark Pilkington (ed.): Strange Attractor Journal One. (Winter 2003/4.) Devizes, Wiltshire: Strange Attractor, 2004. ISSN: 1742-4534. ISBN: 0954805402. x + 260 pp.

I first heard of this curious journal when I read a review of volume two in the Guardian; later I noticed they also have a review of volume one. A third volume has been published recently (5 December 2006). (See also: Amazon links 1, 2, 3, and the publisher's website.)

Basically, this book consists of a number of short articles about various obscure, odd, curious, or bizarre topics. I think anyone who enjoys weird things is likely to find at least something interesting in such a diverse collection, but on the other hand I guess that few people would enjoy everything in it. I'll mention the subjects of the individual articles below and point out which ones I enjoyed and which ones I didn't enjoy.

The typography

The book is also somewhat curious from a typographical point of view. The lines are double-spaced, on top of which there's extra vertical spacing between paragraphs; the first line of each paragraph is indented by a curiously large amount. The are also lots of illustrations (mostly photographs). Thus most of the articles, which run to 10–20 pages in this present format, are probably hardly any longer than a typical article in an ordinary magazine — I guess they don't typically have more text than would fill 4–6 pages of your typical A4-sized magazine that doesn't waste space needlessly, sets text in two columns etc. But there's nothing wrong with that — the good thing about the articles being short is that you can somehow get yourself to read the whole article even if you find it boring.

Another curious thing about the design is the kitschy elaborate designs of the first page of each article; they use ridiculously decorative fonts and lots of long dangly lines as if somebody was trying to imitate the designs from late-19th century magazines (but perhaps they were). I for one am not particularly enthusiastic about 19th-century typographic ideas, but then I shouldn't complain too much — it isn't really that annoying, and at least they were trying to be slightly different than everyone else.

Generously large decorative initials are sometimes used, but if you look at them more closely, they seem to be based on relatively low-resolution bitmaps — low enough that you can see the pixels (see e.g. p. 70).

Another typographical curiosity is the fact that the footnotes are set entirely in small-caps, except for words in italics, where normal lowercase letters are used.

Page numbering begins with i on what is actually the sixth page — weird; even weirder is the fact that an odd number thus appears on a left-hand (i.e. verso) page. After the front matter, page numbering begins with 1 on a right-hand (i.e. recto) page, as it should be.

Miscellaneous articles

There's an interesting article (pp. 56–62) about a 1935 book Strange Cults and Secret Societies in Modern London by one Elliott O'Donnell, about numerous bizarre secret groups, clubs, societies, etc. that supposedly existed in 1930s London. For example, he attended (so he says) a meeting of female vampires: “A girl of eighteen or nineteen said she had sucked the blood of a fat and bald lawyer in pink pyjamas in Streatham. He tasted very salty, she said. Perhaps he's always been a vampire, another responded, ‘all lawyers are’.” (P. 59.) The article concludes that most of the societies probably only existed in O'Donnell's imagination (p. 61), but the book nevertheless sounds quite interesting and I might wish to read it eventually.

There's an article about the Monte Verità community that existed in Switzerland in the early 20th century, dedicated to alternative living and various odd practices. For example, there's a hilarious picture of ‘nude gardening at the Monte Verita community’ (p. 12). Incidentally, the author of this article is Alex Martin, the co-author (under the pseudonym Medlar Lucan) of The Decadent Cookbook and several other Dedalus press volumes (p. 254).

Several of the articles struck me as a bit parochial — they may be of interest to Britons but I don't see what I as a foreigner could do with them. For example, there is an article (pp. 95–108) about two rather besotted and, to me, quite unknown, 20th-century British novelists, Derek Raymond and Patrick Hamilton. None of their works strikes me as something that I would particularly like to read, and most of the article talks about one or two of the London pubs that they frequented, and the present-day condition of those pubs.

Even worse is a handwritten article about somebody's perambulations in Glasgow, going on and on about his/her supposed magical ‘cyrkles’ and accompanied by photographs of completely ordinary buildings and unremarkable locations such as you can see in any town (pp. 78–94).

Something halfway between interesting and too parochial is an article about certain small museums with a focus on waxwork models of strange medical conditions, mostly on a sexual theme (pp. 109–115) — hermaphrodite genitalia “looking like cow udders with a florid embellishment of dust-encrusted pubic hair” (p. 111 — for another nice quote about hermaphrodite genitalia, see my post about The Harmony Silk Factory), siphylitic patients, etc. I was sad to read at the end of the article that the museum that the author had visited was recently closed, the models molten and converted to much more wholesome, disneyfied exhibits of athletes and the like (p. 115). Another interesting observation from that article is the old warning in the museum, saying that children under 6 should be accompanied by their parents (p. 110) — as the author comments, “[t]oday's politically correct climate would never allow this display to be open to children of any age” (p. 115). I'm not one of those who genuinely believe that going 50 or a 100 years back in time would be good, but this sort of absence of unreasonably excessive sensitivity is one of the things that I really miss about the bad old days.

There are some fascinating photos of truly extraordinary hairdos — “3-foot-high sculptures incorporating birds, flowers, and ships (all balanced on top of a lady's head and made, at least in part, of hair)” (pp. 116–23).

There are also articles about the John Frum cargo cult in Vanuatu (pp. 16–32), somewhat crazy Indian ascetics (pp. 33–50; some of whom “pull jeeps through Allahabad, tied to their private parts”, p. 39), the U.S. suburbia of the 1950s (pp. 63–77), origins of terrorism among 19th-century anarchists, the 1894 terrorist bombing near the Greenwich observatory, and the influence of all this on Joseph Conrad's story The Secret Agent (pp. 197–206), and one about Montague Summers and the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (pp. 207–218; a rather shapeless article, but with a few interesting factoids)

Mind control?

There's an interesting interview (pp. 160–8) with Helen John, the “current vice chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament” (p. 161), about various unusual effects, presumably caused by electromagnetic radiation (e.g. from radars), that were experienced by the women who were camping around the Greenham Common air force base in protest against the hosting of nuclear weapons there.

The interview is fairly sober, and I'd be interested to learn more about the possible effects that microwaves and similar things might have on people. The problem with these things is how to separate the wheat from the chaff, as the area is replete with all sorts of conspiracy theorists claiming that microwaves are being used by the military as a mass mind control technique, etc. (see e.g. the HAARP project).

David Lindsay

There's an article about David Lindsay, a Scottish novelist. The story of his career is quite touching; his novels, published in the 1920s and 30s, flopped one after another; none of them managed to impress the public, and eventually publishers refused to touch his work at all. He lived his last years in somewhat straitened circumstances and died in 1945. It was only posthumously that his work received the recognition that eluded it during his lifetime, and his Voyage to Arcturus became one of the classics of science fiction.

Incidentally, one of the chief figures involved in helping spread Lindsay's literary reputation after his death was Colin Wilson — the very same person whose book by the fascinating title Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals has been exciting my curiosity for some time. Apparently Wilson wrote a huge number of books, fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics, including several volumes of Atlanteana.

This was quite an interesting article. I've heard of A Voyage to Arcturus before, but apart from that I didn't really know anything about Lindsay. Anyway, from what I've read here (see excerpts from his works, pp. 229–31), I'm not really terribly interested in reading Arcturus or any other of Lindsay's books.

Incidentally, it is interesting in how many different circumstances the name David Lindsay comes up. My first encounter with this name was in Karl May's near-Eastern novels, several of which include a somewhat caricatured Englishman named David Lindsay (rich, checkered suit, his conversation peppered by English phrases) as one of the main side characters.

Later I heard of the Scottish poet, and in fact his collected works (ed. David Laing, 3 vols., 1879) are still waiting unread on one of my shelves (and will probably continue waiting for some time). Lindsay also makes an appearance in Scott's poem Marmion (canto 4): “Still is thy name in high account,/ And still thy verse has charms,/ Sir David Lindesay of the Mount,/ Lord Lion King-at-Arms!” And now I find in the wikipedia two or three other people named David Lindsay.

Count Stenbock

There's an article about Punch (the theatre character), written by count Stenbock (pp. 235–42). I hadn't known much about Punch before, so this was in a way informative, but I also found it fairly boring. The more interesting thing here is the introduction by David Tibet (pp. 232–4), with some more information about Stenbock and his work.

I knew that Stenbock had been a minor decadent poet; I've heard of him several times in the various books I've read about Wilde and Beardsley; but apart from that, I didn't know anything definite about him until now. I was delighted to learn that Tibet edited and published The Collected Poems of Count Stenbock (London: Durtro, 2001), which I hope to eventually buy and read.

Tibet also mentions he is “presently compiling The Collected Works of Count Stenbock, to be published in 2004/5, which will collect everything written by him as well as many photos, ephemera, and previously unpublished biographical information and photographs” (p. 234). This sounds extremely interesting, but unfortunately I couldn't find any information about such a book on the web — I guess it hasn't been published yet. I hope he hasn't given up on it altogether. I did find, on ABE, two copies of his Studies of Death: Stories by S. E. Stenbock (London: Durtro, 1996), which is said to contain all his known prose; but unfortunately they're insanely expensive ($215 and £150).

[To be continued in a few days.]


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