Established in 1919, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher of horror for nearly 100 years. Presided over by the Eden family, the press passed through the generations publishing short horror novellas to a private list of subscribers. Eden books were always published under pseudonyms and, until now, have never been available to the public.
Here’s a story of something which once happened to me that I’m not proud of.
A few years ago I worked for a computer games company, designing storylines, writing dialogue and generally doing what I could to finesse the stock characters gamers seem to love. It was well paid but mindless, and involved a great deal of travelling between where I live in Manchester, the company offices in London and their central office in Berlin. Now, I like travelling by train – it gives me time to read, to see the countryside, to think – but the long hours made life exhausting. I’d nod off in Macclesfield, wake up in Stoke, nod off again in Heathrow, wake up again over Hanover. Things had been this way since February. It was now September and things were coming to a head. I simply couldn’t go on like this. I was unable to think straight. I’d lose track of what day it was, in which direction I was supposed to be travelling, who I was meeting, what I was writing, who I was. My diet was appalling. I drank. It was awful.
One day I was on the tube, on the Northern line, heading for a meeting with some distributors. It was very early in the morning and my carriage was almost deserted. As I reached Waterloo I stood up, yawning and stretching. That’s when I first saw him. He was a gangly, balding man sat in the adjoining carriage, with a blank, Buster Keaton-ish face. He was reading a book. Nosey book-guy that I am, I couldn’t help but peer at the cover, trying to work out what it was. He glanced up, we briefly made eye-contact and I looked away. As I stepped off the train I looked back through the window to see if I could see the cover of his book. As the doors hissed shut and the train began to move I took it in fleetingly: the author was Rowan Vassell, the title was Butcher’s Pass, and the cover image was a painting of a blood-stained apron hanging on the back of a door. Incredible, I thought. This was an Eden book.
Eden books – that is titles published by The Eden Book Society – are close to a holy grail for book-collecting nerds like me. For those not in the know, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher which for almost 100 years regularly produced horror novellas for its subscribers. They were never available shops, never reviewed in the newspapers, and each of them was written under a pseudonym. The rumour goes that some well-known names tried their hand at churning out a schlocky Eden book for a few bob – Margery Allingham, Elizabeth Taylor, even Noel Coward – all keeping their identities off the cover and their involvement a lifelong secret. At the time the books themselves were seen at the time as throwaway junk. They pop up from time to time on eBay and fetch mindbending sums and mythical tales spread through book-collecting circles about an Eden title miraculously found by a friend of a friend in some suburban Oxfam.
A few weeks later I boarded the train from Manchester to London, found a seat and almost immediately fell asleep. When I came to, somewhere near Leighton Buzzard, I found the train was busier and a man had taken the seat next to me. It was him: the same lanky bald guy from the Northern line. And again he was reading a book. Was it Butcher’s Pass? I couldn’t help leaning forwards surreptitiously and trying to get a glimpse of the cover. I only managed to do so once we arrived into Euston and my neighbour stood up and dropped the book into his satchel. It wasn’t Butcher’s Pass but another Eden title, The Evening Visitor by Shirley Longford.
I left the train in pursuit of my Eden man, but we were separated by an elderly couple struggling to disembark with their suitcases. I pushed ahead of them and jogged up the concourse and into the station where I stopped and looked around, searching for him. I’ve no idea what I planned to say to him, but it didn’t matter: he was gone, lost in the crowds.
It was late December when I next saw him. I was on a flight to Berlin, going through my notes when I glanced up and saw him, a few rows ahead of me, in an aisle seat, again reading what looked like a slim book. He was on the final page. I saw him finish his reading, close the book and place it on his lap. I could just make out the words on the cover. The Poachers by R.G. Bartholomew – you guessed it, another Eden book.
The plane was sparsely occupied and, without quite knowing what I was doing, I unbuckled my seatbelt and snuck into the aisle seat alongside his.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to bother you but I couldn’t help but notice what you were reading. Could I possibly have a look at it?’
He simply stared at me, his laconic face unreadable.
‘I mean, it’s an Eden Society book. I’m sure you know how rare Eden Society books are. I just wondered if you’d mind if I had a look at it.’
Still, he stared.
‘Right… So listen, I’ll pay you if that’s what you’re after.’ I started rooting through my pockets. ‘I’ll give you… what have I got? Look, here – I’ll give you 20 euros. Just to let me, y’know, look at it.’
Yet more staring.
‘Alright… okay… fifty. Come on, mate. Just let me… hold it.’
‘No.’ He spoke so briefly, so tersely, that I was unable to tell whether or not he had an accent. He turned away, staring ahead blankly. It was more than a little disquieting. Who the hell was this guy? What was his deal? But also: what was my deal? Who the hell was I?
I couldn’t think what more I could say so, awkwardly, I returned to my seat.
I spent the day in the Berlin office, looking at a rough version of some scenes in the game I’d written. In the scene the protagonist, a cowboy who is trapped on an island populated with zombies, discovers a secret room full of beer which the player is able to make him drink, causing him to get drunk, making the controls unreliable. I’d written a brief monologue which dumped this exposition on the player which, now I saw it in action and heard the dialogue, was far too long and seemed completely out of character. What, I asked, was the point of having a drunk protagonist? Did it have any subsequent impact on the game? Did it help or hinder the player’s progress? What did it mean?
‘It... it doesn’t mean anything,’ one of the developers told me. ‘It’s just fun, you know?’
During a break I left the building and went for a walk. The office I worked in looked out over the River Spree and I’d head to Oberbaum Bridge, just a short walk away. It had been snowing lightly when I’d arrived in Berlin but it was now coming down heavily. The demarcations between road, pavement and small grass square had been erased, snow mounded atop the parked cars, the river was obscured from view. I shuffled along, thinking my thoughts: I was depressed by my work, but I knew there was something else, something more, and I knew it related somehow to the Eden man.
It was as though thinking about it made him appear. Because there he was. Improbably, he was sitting on one of the benches which looked out onto the river, his legs crossed, an umbrella propped on his shoulder, sheltering him from the snow as he read. After standing there and staring at him for a moment, I edged forward. Naturally, he was reading another Eden book. This time it was Red Lights on the White Rock by L. Gregory Penn, the cover image was of a island mountain surrounded by choppy waves. I was close enough to see the rumples on the corners, the crease down the spine. I honestly don’t know why, somehow I think those creases are to blame, I reached out, snatched the book from the lanky man and began to run. I sprinted across the snow as fast as I could. As I rounded onto the bridge I looked behind me. Was I being followed? I couldn’t see anyone, but then I couldn’t see much, the snow cut off the footprints I was leaving.
It was windy on the bridge which felt oddly fitting as I hurtled along it, skidding and slipping, clutching Red Lights on the White Rock close to me. What was my plan? Where was I going? What would I do? I had no idea, all I knew was: I had an Eden book. I took another glance behind me – I still didn’t seem to be being followed. Although I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet ahead of me, I knew I was close to the other side. An obscure conviction that once I reached it I would be safe and the book would be mine. I took one last look behind me. Was there a dim figure I could just about make out, a lanky strip of grey moving through the white behind me?
That was the last thought I remember having. After that it was all headache and blood. I awoke, layered with snow, lying flat on my back in the centre of the bridge. A pool of pink ice was reddening around my head. Something had caused the side of my face had come undone and an insistent pain pulsed behind my eyes like a heartbeat. I searched through the snow, scraping at it with my hands, but of course the book had gone.
I returned to the office where I handed my notice in. Then I phoned for a taxi to the airport.
I think about all of this quite often, both the act which seemed so unlike me and the strange period in my life which produced it. It's not infrequently that I ask myself: was there ever an Eden man?
And it came to mind again when Dead Ink Books got in touch to ask if I’d like to be involved in their latest project: republishing the Eden Book Society backlist in its entirety. Dead Ink will reproduce these wonderful horror books as an annual subscription, beginning with the year 1972 and publishing all the Eden titles that were released that year. Both myself and my erstwhile Night Visitors colleague Jenn Ashworth have been fortunate enough to be involved in the rehabilitation of Plunge Hill by J.M. McVulpin, a grisly tale of medical horror. Some other great authors, like Alison Moore and Andrew Michael Hurley, will also be doing their bit to restore some of Eden’s incredible 1972 output to the reading public.
But none of this can happen without a bit of help from that reading public first. Dead Ink are running a Kickstarter campaign to get this off the ground.
You can subscribe for a year of unseen horror here.
I love Halloween, both in its resplendent gaudiness and in the strange, numinous seriousness which underpins it. Early each autumn I develop in my mind airy plans to write a great nonfictional treatise on Halloween and how those two interlink – the plastic pumpkin toys and the cosmic chill that lurks within us – and each year I find I’ve simply not got the time.
And yet I read, and one thing I’m always on the lookout for is quotations on Halloween. Christmas, its traditions, symbolism and cultural detritus, are awarded a seriousness and great writers’ observations are there to be collated (I have done some of this collating myself in the past). But Halloween, not so much.
John Burnside is one of my favourite authors, precisely because he spans numerous forms: poetry, criticism, novels and a handful of liminal memoirs. He’s also the writer who, fleetingly, comes closest to writing in that serious way I’d love to write about Halloween, that is approaching it not simply as a festival of spookiness and schlock but also as a time for interrogating death and darkness.
Here, for instance, is the opening of A Lie About My Father, Burnside's memoir concerning his terrorised relationship with his hard-drinking father.
And here is a poem by Burnside, ‘At My Father’s Funeral’, first published in the London Review of Books in 2012 and included in his most recent collection, All One Breath. It touches on Halloween in a similar fashion, slightly fearful and wholly reverent.
We wanted to seal his mouth
with a handful of clay,
to cover his eyes
with the ash of the last
bonfire he made
at the rainiest edge
of the garden
and didn’t we think, for a moment,
of crushing his feet
so he couldn’t return to the house
to stand at the window,
smoking and peering in,
the look on his face
like that flaw in the sway of the world
where mastery fails
and a hinge in the mind
swings open – grief
or terror coming loose
and drifting, like a leaf,
into the flames.
Another book which comes to mind is Hardy’s Return of the Native, which doesn’t mention Halloween itself, not entirely surprising for a novel of 1870’s provincialism, but takes place during the season, the time of year when ‘pale lunar touches which make beauties of hags’, its tragic love story set against a backdrop of village festivities and disruptive customs, with the modern, urban world intruding onto the distant fringes of the pastoral Heath.
Hardy goes some way in imparting to the reader the appeal of the dark season: ‘to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’
There’s also Ray Bradbury, a writer I’m a little fearful to say I don’t think of as being particularly good. He’s far too homely and periphrastic for my tastes, but it’s hard not to have a soft spot for Something Wicked This Way Comes, a paean to October, ‘a rare month for boys’, and those who revel in its dark quintessence: ‘For these beings, fall is ever the normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth... Such are the autumn people.’
And finally, who else? Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Spirits of the Dead’, as well as being Poe at his most Poe, is possibly the most successful distillation of the spirit of the season I can think of, where solitude, darkness and a meditation on the dead all converge, resulting in a kind of black awe. Here is the poem in its entirety.
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness — for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries.
What other Halloween passages are there? Are there some obvious ones I’ve missed? Any obscure observations hidden away in quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore? if so, let me know.
Hey! Guess what. I’m a guest on the latest episode of the wonderful The End of All Things podcast.
Rob Cutforth sat down outside HOME in Manchester with myself and Jenn Ashworth for a couple of drinks and a chat about the process we went through to create The Night Visitors, our collaborative (and award-winning, solid 5-star ratings on Amazon, etc.) horror novella, but also about technology, adulthood, adolescence, whether we’re currently living through a golden age of horror cinema (we are imho) and with what confidence and self-assurance someone like me who writes but also has a day-job and scant free time to hand should say ‘I am a writer’. Also, for those interested in my own personal lore, in this recording the origin story behind the ‘V’ in Richard V. Hirst is finally and dramatically revealed.
Disclaimer: Jenn and I are also frequently very mean to one another in this recording, but it’s okay because we’ve been friends since we were kids.
You can listen to it on Soundcloud or subscribe to The End of All Things on iTunes.
My inability to smile for a photograph without doing a weird Troy McClure-esque half-squint thing sadly continues.
Like a lot of writers, I’ve no idea what I’m doing. I’m never really sure what I want to write, what I’m trying to say, whether what I’m writing is working, whether what I’m working on should be a short story or a novel, whether the title needs changing, whether to use a comma or a full stop, whether I’m even a writer or just someone with a laptop going mad.
I did a brief interview with Gehenna & Hinnom, a horror magazine, in which I talk about how Ted Hughes, Virginia Woolf and Fiendish Feet yoghurts made me want to become a writer.You can read it here.
This is done in promotion of The Shadow Booth, an anthology of brand new weird and eerie short stories from the likes of myself, Paul Tremblay, Gary Budden and others which is currently doing roaring trade on Kickstarter. There’s more about thinking behind The Shadow Booth in this essay by its editor Dan Coxon and you can pledge some money to make it all happen here.
This is how he pisses now. Slumped back against the cistern, letting it drain from him. It is four in the morning.
Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind and moss'd cottage-trees bent with apples. But also the season of witches and ghosts, of clowns in sewers and the fabled sharknado.
For the next couple of weeks, my ghost story ‘The Upstairs Room’ is available for you to read on Minor Literatures.
‘The Upstairs Room’, which I wrote about not so long ago here, will be included in the first edition of The Shadow Booth, a brand new journal of weird and eerie fiction, edited by the award-winning Dan Coxon. Drawing its inspiration from the likes of HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, and also Thomas Ligotti and (one of my favourites) Robert Aickman, The Shadow Booth explores the dark, murky territory between horror and literary fiction.
But none of this can happen without you. The stories are already all written, the cover is designed, the baying readership awaits. All that is needed is for you to support the project by placing your order to get your copy in time for Christmas.
You can read ‘The Upstairs Room’ here. And, more importantly, you can pledge your support and order a copy of The Shadow Booth here.
EDIT. The bad news: this story has now been taken down from the Minor Literatures site. The good: The Shadow Booth blasted its Kickstarter target and is now in the process of being printed, replete with ‘The Upstairs Room’. If you didn’t get a chance to pledge but still want to buy a copy of the book, I’m sure once it’s all wrapped up I’ll be mercilessly banging on about it, so stay tuned.