Archive for the ‘Christopher Morley’ Category

These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

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where the blue begins christopher morley cover 001Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley ~ 1922. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934. Hardcover. 215 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

“I am not free—
And it may be
Life is too tight around my shins;
For, unlike you,
I can’t break through
A truant where the blue begins.

“Out of the very element
Of bondage, that here holds me pent,
I’ll make my furious sonnet:
I’ll turn my noose
To tightrope use
And madly dance upon it.

“So I will take
My leash, and make
A wilder and more subtle fleeing
And I shall be
More escapading and more free
Than you have ever dreamed of being!”

It took my two tries to get this one finished, as I kept putting it aside for other things more immediately pressing, but finished it is, and what an odd – and oddly diverting – story it was.

It starts off predictably enough. Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling.

Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.

He had no responsibilities, not even a motor car, for his tastes were surprisingly simple. If he happened to be spending an evening at the country club, and a rainstorm came down, he did not worry about getting home. He would sit by the fire and chuckle to see the married members creep away one by one. He would get out his pipe and sleep that night at the club, after telephoning Fuji not to sit up for him. When he felt like it he used to read in bed, and even smoke in bed. When he went to town to the theatre, he would spend the night at a hotel to avoid the fatigue of the long ride on the 11:44 train. He chose a different hotel each time, so that it was always an Adventure. He had a great deal of fun.

But having fun is not quite the same as being happy…

Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?

Gissing was increasingly disturbed. Even his seizures of joy, which came as he strolled in the smooth spring air and sniffed the wild, vigorous aroma of the woodland earth, were troublesome because he did not know why he was so glad. Every morning it seemed to him that life was about to exhibit some delicious crisis in which the meaning and excellence of all things would plainly appear. He sang in the bathtub. Daily it became more difficult to maintain that decorum which Fuji expected. He felt that his life was being wasted. He wondered what ought to be done about it.

Casting about the April countryside, Gissing one night comes upon three abandoned infants, and his immediate impulse is to take them home and raise them as his own. This he successfully does, and in the turmoil of surrogate fatherhood his larger questions for the moment are answered, until Fuji rebels, gives notice, and leaves Gissing to manage on his own.

Consternation! What to do now? It’s suddenly all too much! Luckily there is motherly Mrs. Spaniel, Gissing’s laundress, who can be persuaded to give over her other duties and come to care for the children, allowing Gissing some breathing space once again. And once he has time to collect his thoughts, his mind returns to its original track. What’s out there? What is it all about?

Leaving Mrs. Spaniel in charge, Gissing departs for the city, in order to further explore his possible destiny. There he finds employment as a floorwalker in a large department store, and through his superior intellect and with a goodly dose of bravado, he soon rises to the position of store manager. But though this is financially rewarding, Gissing’s spiritual life is still unfulfilled, and he abandons his position, breaking the heart of his elderly sponsor as he goes.

A stint as a lay reader in a church follows, and a promising romance with the appealing and prosperous Miss Airedale seems for a while to still Gissing’s wandering soul, but this too comes to naught, and he runs away to sea, a stowaway on the steamship Pomerania, where he is discovered and adopted by the gruff Captain Scottie, a fellow deep thinker and theological debater. Gissing rises to Staff-Captain, and despite having no previous knowledge of seamanship, proceeds to steer the ship at will, following his whims, to the mute distress of the helpless crew.

He himself had fallen into a kind of tranced felicity, in which these questions no longer had other than an ingenious interest. His heart was drowned in the engulfing blue. As they made their southing, wind and weather seemed to fall astern, the sun poured with a more golden candour. He stood at the wheel in a tranquil reverie, blithely steering toward some bright belly of cloud that had caught his fancy. Mr. Pointer shook his head when he glanced surreptitiously at the steering recorder, a device that noted graphically every movement of the rudder with a view to promoting economical helmsmanship. Indeed Gissing’s course, as logged on the chart, surprised even himself, so that he forbade the officers taking their noon observations. When Mr. Pointer said something about isobars, the staff-captain replied serenely that he did not expect to find any polar bears in these latitudes.

As crew and passengers grow increasingly restive, Gissing eliminates them by one bold move, and sails on alone, until he reaches an intriguing landfall, whereupon all his questions are at last answered.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you may be noticing a certain theme with the names and all. For the characters are indeed all canine. This is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of a church congregation and must flee madly from their sharp white teeth, escaping through the Sunday-peaceful countryside until refuge presents itself in an unattended steamroller, with bizarrely hilarious results.

It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book.  It was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.

Here it is, if you want to read it yourself, courtesy of the ever-helpful Project Gutenberg.

And here is a quite recent review, at Flayrah, which gives a good overview, though it contains some spoilers.

Amazing what one finds in the dusty vintage stacks!

Here are several examples of the Arthur Rackham illustrations, made for a very rare limited edition printing. Rackham’s vision of the characters is rather disturbingly creepy, I think, but I’m not really sure how I see them myself, so can’t be too critical!

Gissing, the patient Mrs. Spaniel, and the puppies.

Gissing, the patient Mrs. Spaniel, and the puppies.

The enchanting Miss Airedale flirts with Our Hero.

The enchanting Miss Airedale flirts with Our Hero.

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Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley ~ 1917. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1955. Introduction by John T. Winterich. Illustrations by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 160 pages.

My rating: 9/10. An unexpected story, boisterously told. The point off is for narrator Helen’s continued refrain of “I’m so fat and plain! I’m so dull and unintellectual!” Well, Helen, if you continue to sell yourself short like that, don’t be surprised if people treat you like a doormat. A minor issue, but one that I ground my teeth at a bit. Helen’s actions negated her sorry opinion of herself, by the way.

*****

This is the prequel to the perennially popular 1919 bestseller, The Haunted Bookshop. Though the books share a certain joie de vivre, they are quite different in style and presentation. Parnassus on Wheels is much less consciously intellectual; the narrator has a distinctive voice which is exclusive to her story, while Bookshop is a different kettle of fish entirely. I liked them both, in different ways.

Thirty-nine-year-old spinster Helen McGill lives a contented life on the small farm she owns with her brother Andrew. At least, it was contented, a happy contrast from her previous occupation as a governess in the city, which she joyfully left in order to join her brother in his quest for a more congenial way of life to combat his ill-health. The farm was just the ticket; Andrew has been usefully occupied with crops and pigs and mild rural pleasures, while Helen has kept the home fires burning and her chickens productively producing eggs.

But something has happened to change all of that. An elderly great-uncle has died, leaving the two his library, and Andrew, stimulated by the sudden abundance of literature at his disposal, has decided to become a writer himself. He pens an ode to the rural life, Paradise Regained, and sends it off to a New York publisher. The book catches the fancy of the jaded city dwellers everywhere, and Andrew is suddenly a best-selling author. He has started neglecting the farm to hob nob with the urban literati, and between city visits tramps the countryside looking for new material. Happiness and Hayseed follows, and then a book of poems. Through all of this Helen keeps the home fires burning and the farm on an even keel, but she is starting to get rather jaded herself in her role as “rural Xantippe” and “domestic balance-wheel that kept the great writer close to the homely realities of life”, as she has seen herself described by one of Andrew’s doting biographers.

Helen is ripe for rebellion, and when her chance to shake her brother up a bit comes she seizes it with both hands. Andrew is out one day, when up drives a horse-drawn van, with the following legend painted on its side:

R. MIFFLIN’S

TRAVELLING PARNASSUS

GOOD BOOKS FOR SALE

SHAKESPEARE, CHARLES LAMB, R.L.S.

HAZLITT, AND ALL OTHERS

The driver of the van, one Roger Mifflin, is looking for Andrew McGill. He presents Helen with his card:

         ROGER MIFFLIN’S
TRAVELLING PARNASSUS
 
Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old:
Books, the truest friends of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What librarian can surpass us?

Helen chuckles, and is immediately interested. She does, after all, appreciate a good book herself, though not to the excess her brother has shown. And Roger Mifflin has a business proposition of sorts. The van is a travelling bookshop, and he thinks it would be just the thing for Andrew to take over. Roger announces his intention of selling his business, lock, stock, horse Peg (short for Pegasus), and all.

Helen, imagining an even more complete neglect of the farm should her brother take on this attractive offer, is aghast. She tries to send Mifflin on his way, with no success.

The two joust back and forth, and Helen gets the gleam of an idea. She will purchase the travelling bookstore, and leave Andrew to watch the farm. She has some money saved, and turn-about is fair play, after all…

The deed is duly done, and, leaving the Swedish hired lady in charge, Helen hits the road with Roger along to show her the ropes. Needless to say, Andrew is flabbergasted at his sister’s sudden whim, and sets out in hot pursuit.

Hi-jinks ensue for numerous chapters, until a satisfyingly romantic conclusion is reached.

A grand little romp of a book, something of a period piece, but happy and playful, and well worth the short few hours it takes to gobble it up.

Lippincott’s 1955 edition, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon in Langley last week, has the extra bonus of a very informative explanatory foreword by John Winterich, which added greatly to my understanding and enjoyment of both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop – I believe it was written to accompany the omnibus volume of both stories which I’ve seen listed on ABE – though this is a stand-alone volume. Clever line illustrations by Douglas Gorsline added an extra fillip to the tale.

*****

After I’d read Parnassus, I stumbled upon a little bit of interesting news regarding Christopher Morley’s inspiration for the story. Turns out that this novel is a send-up of another contemporary novelist of best-selling “rural odes”, one Ray Stannard Baker, writing under the pseudonym David Grayson. Baker-Grayson’s 1907 book, Adventures in Contentment, was immensely popular and gained a large following of people yearning after “the simple life”; it was followed by eight other volumes.  Though Baker himself lived a completely urban lifestyle, as a hard-hitting newspaper reporter and journalist, his alter-ego “Grayson” fictionally left the city for the peaceful rural life of a small farm, where he was joined by his sister “Harriet”; the two enjoyed a rural idyll centered on the simple pleasures of country life and wholesome labour.

A detailed exposé of Baker-Grayson can be found here . Fascinating stuff!

And I’m also linking to a great review of Parnassus by Christine at The Book Trunk.

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The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley ~ 1919. This edition: Lippincott, 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: The bookish bits are an easy 10/10. The mystery bits, pretty bad, so only a 5/10. Okay, maybe a 6. Reflecting the time of writing and all that. The romance between the married couple, definitely a 10/10. Aubrey and Titania, hmm, they can have a 9. Another 10 for Bock the dog. It’s looking pretty good, here. Grand illustrations, too. How about an enthusiastic 9/10, with the note that this is very much a period piece, so proceed to read with that caveat in mind.

*****

If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby-carriages, it is to be hoped you may chance upon a quiet by-street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.

This bookshop, which does business under the unusual name “Parnassus at Home,” is housed in one of the comfortable old brown-stone dwellings which have been the joy of several generations of plumbers and cockroaches. The owner of the business has been at pains to remodel the house to make it a more suitable shrine for his trade, which deals entirely in second-hand volumes. There is no second-hand bookshop in the world more worthy of respect.

It was about six o’clock of a cold November evening, with gusts of rain splattering upon the pavement, when a young man proceeded uncertainly along Gissing Street, stopping now and then to look at shop windows as though doubtful of his way. At the warm and shining face of a French rotisserie he halted to compare the number enamelled on the transom with a memorandum in his hand. Then he pushed on for a few minutes, at last reaching the address he sought. Over the entrance his eye was caught by the sign:

PARNASSUS AT HOME R. AND H. MIFFLIN BOOKLOVERS WELCOME! THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED

He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling of the muses, lowered his overcoat collar, and looked about.

It was very different from such bookstores as he had been accustomed to patronize. Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one: the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above, a gallery ran round the wall, which carried books to the ceiling. The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco. In front of him he found a large placard in a frame:

     THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
     Of all great literature, in hosts;

     We sell no fakes or trashes.
     Lovers of books are welcome here,
     No clerks will babble in your ear,

     Please smoke--but don't drop ashes!
                             ----
     Browse as long as you like.
     Prices of all books plainly marked.
     If you want to ask questions, you'll find the proprietor
           where the tobacco smoke is thickest.
     We pay cash for books.
     We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.

     Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.

     Let us prescribe for you.

     By R. & H. MIFFLIN,
                                     Proprs.

The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades. Passing down a narrow aisle between the alcoves the visitor noticed that some of the compartments were wholly in darkness; in others where lamps were glowing he could see a table and chairs. In one corner, under a sign lettered ESSAYS, an elderly gentleman was reading, with a face of fanatical ecstasy illumined by the sharp glare of electricity; but there was no wreath of smoke about him so the newcomer concluded he was not the proprietor.

As the young man approached the back of the shop the general effect became more and more fantastic. On some skylight far overhead he could hear the rain drumming; but otherwise the place was completely silent, peopled only (so it seemed) by the gurgitating whorls of smoke and the bright profile of the essay reader. It seemed like a secret fane, some shrine of curious rites, and the young man’s throat was tightened by a stricture which was half agitation and half tobacco. Towering above him into the gloom were shelves and shelves of books, darkling toward the roof. He saw a table with a cylinder of brown paper and twine, evidently where purchases might be wrapped; but there was no sign of an attendant.

“This place may indeed be haunted,” he thought, “perhaps by the delighted soul of Sir Walter Raleigh, patron of the weed, but seemingly not by the proprietors.”

His eyes, searching the blue and vaporous vistas of the shop, were caught by a circle of brightness that shone with a curious egg-like lustre. It was round and white, gleaming in the sheen of a hanging light, a bright island in a surf of tobacco smoke. He came more close, and found it was a bald head.

This head (he then saw) surmounted a small, sharp-eyed man who sat tilted back in a swivel chair, in a corner which seemed the nerve centre of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts, with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters. An antiquated typewriter, looking something like a harpsichord, was half-buried in sheets of manuscript. The little bald-headed man was smoking a corn-cob pipe and reading a cook-book.

“I beg your pardon,” said the caller, pleasantly; “is this the proprietor?”

Mr. Roger Mifflin, the proprietor of “Parnassus at Home,” looked up, and the visitor saw that he had keen blue eyes, a short red beard, and a convincing air of competent originality.

“It is,” said Mr. Mifflin. “Anything I can do for you?”

*****

So begins this charming story, which was literally forced upon me by the proprietor of Murdoch’s Bookshoppe  in Mission, B.C., during a recent visit. “Have you read that?” he demanded of me as I browsed through it at the front desk while he was totting up my other purchases, giving me a stern look after he plunked each tempting hardcover down after noting the pencilled-in price. “No!? What do you mean, you’ve heard of it? You must READ it. Buy it!”

So I did. And I have. Bought it and read it.

How to describe this? Well, first off, it’s a stand-alone sequel to an earlier book, Parnassus on Wheels, in which our hero apparently operates a kind of travelling bookshop. Haven’t read that one yet, but it’s on my to-acquire list. (Though I see it is recently available via Project Gutenberg, as is The Haunted Bookshop itself and a number of Morley’s other works. I still prefer a physical book, after having experimented with a friend’s e-reader, and after reading a number of works online through Gutenberg. Print on the paper page, please, though I firmly believe that Gutenberg is providing a crucial resource by making available so many out of print gems. I occasionally do some proofreading for Gutenberg projects, which is an incredibly satisfying volunteer pastime. Maybe I should write a post about that one day.)

I am digressing, which is appropriate, as The Haunted Bookshop is a great series of digressions itself.

It is also a love story (or two), a mystery story, an ode to the printed page and the ideas found between covers, and, most vividly, an anti-war tirade, being published immediately post World War I, when the world was still reeling from the brutality of that event.

Roger Mifflin and his wife Helen have settled down in New York to pursue the bookselling trade from a fixed location. They are about to take into their household the daughter of a wealthy friend, who wishes young Titania to sober herself from her frivolous ways by learning what it is to toil and earn her living by her labour. Titania turns out to be a true treasure, and she soon attracts a swain – a certain Aubrey Gilbert, who has come into the shop to attempt to sell advertising to Mr. Mifflin, and, though turned down on this front, becomes attached to happily eccentric Roger and makes the shop something of a second home

A mystery regarding the continual disappearance and reappearance of a Thomas Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell on the shop’s shelves leads to encounters with sinister Germans, and a plot to assassinate Woodrow Wilson on his way to a Peace Conference. All’s well that ends well (except for a casualty or two in the final dramatic scene.)

This is quite the period piece, as I mentioned earlier, but is more than redeemed by the glorious bits of rambling prose. I will leave you with another sample, which made me laugh out loud – not sure what that says about the nature of my sense of humour, but I found this very funny.  I won’t force this book upon anyone in the forthright way of Mr. Murdoch, but I will give it a cheerful recommendation. And here is the author describing one of Roger’s domestic weaknesses.

I hesitate to touch upon a topic of domestic bitterness, but candor compels me to say that Roger’s evening vigils invariably ended at the ice-box. There are two theories as to this subject of ice-box plundering, one of the husband and the other of the wife. Husbands are prone to think (in their simplicity) that if they take a little of everything palatable they find in the refrigerator, but thus distributing their forage over the viands the general effect of the depredation will be almost unnoticeable. Whereas wives say (and Mrs. Mifflin had often explained to Roger) that it is far better to take all of any one dish than a little of each; for the latter course is likely to diminish each item below the bulk at which it is still useful as a left-over. Roger, however, had the obstinate viciousness of all good husbands, and he knew the delights of cold provender by heart. Many a stewed prune, many a mess of string beans or naked cold boiled potato, many a chicken leg, half apple pie, or sector of rice pudding, had perished in these midnight festivals. He made it a point of honour never to eat quite all of the dish in question, but would pass with unabated zest from one to another. This habit he had sternly repressed during the War, but Mrs. Mifflin had noticed that since the armistice he had resumed it with hearty violence. This is a custom which causes the housewife to be confronted the next morning with a tragical vista of pathetic scraps. Two slices of beet in a little earthenware cup, a sliver of apple pie one inch wide, three prunes lowly nestling in a mere trickle of their own syrup, and a tablespoonful of stewed rhubarb where had been one of those yellow basins nearly full—what can the most resourceful kitcheneer do with these oddments? This atrocious practice cannot be too bitterly condemned.

I do believe I will print that passage off and attach it to my fridge, in the hopes that my own domestic affairs will see an improvement in this area!

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