Monday, 18 May 2015

The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard: First Edition (Michael Joseph, 1965), Book Review

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 22/5/15.

I haven't read every single one of the eighteen novels that British cult suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard published from 1963–1979, but I have read well over half of them by this point – enough, I reckon, and given everything I've learned about the writer since Book Glutton introduced me to his work four years ago, to venture that The Holm Oaks might be the quintessential Hubbard novel.

It's also one of the scarcest in first (although readily available in print-on-demand or ebook from the Langtail Press): I fortuitously chanced upon a copy of the 1965 Michael Joseph first edition in Tunbridge Wells only very recently, but I should imagine the odds of anyone making a similarly serendipitous discovery are pretty slim, and I don't believe there are any British firsts available online at present (although fellow Hubbard enthusiast Polecat reports that he nabbed one on eBay fairly recently, plus there are one or two extant listings for the US first, published by Atheneum in 1966). Still, scarcity in first is a characteristic of all four of the Hubbard novels published by Joseph, and increasingly so of those published by Geoffrey Bles and Macmillan as well; the number of Hubbard devotees may be small, but I'd hazard the number of Hubbard first editions available to buy is smaller yet.

Happily, since I first wrote about Hubbard in 2011, a further fifteen of his novels have been reissued as ebooks by Orion imprint The Murder Room, so it's now rather easier to read him, if not collect him. And anyone interested in doing so could do a lot worse than starting with The Holm Oaks, so characteristic is it of his oeuvre. There's the preoccupation with an unsettling feature of the British countryside, in this case the eponymous oak tree wood; there's the obsessive romance, with the male lead – Jake Haddon here, who inherits a remote coastal house adjacent to the aforementioned wood and moves in with his wife, Elizabeth, and her sister, Stella – "losing his shit", as Book Glutton once put it – over Carol, the wife of the owner of the wood, Dennis Wainwright; there's the increasingly pervasive but unspecified sense of doom; and there's the dry humour and wry one-liners.

There's also a short stretch where the narrative adopts the jauntier tone of Hubbard's earliest novels (for adults), Flush as May (1963) and Picture of Millie (1964), as Jake and Elizabeth assume the joint mantle of eco-warriors, dashing about the countryside enlisting the aid of councillors and subcommittees in a bid to save the wood from destruction at the hands of Dennis Wainwright; but this doesn't last long; for the most part the book has more in common with the gloomy – but superb – A Hive of Glass (1965) or A Thirsty Evil (1974). However, in regard to that aspect of the plot the novel could almost be seen as a prototypical eco thriller; ornithologist Elizabeth's case for rescuing the wood from Dennis's nefarious designs rests on it being the roosting ground for a night heron, and even Jake argues for the survival of the wood in its own right and not merely because of what he gets up to in it with Carol.

The dust jacket of the Michael Joseph edition was designed by the wonderfully – and strangely appositely – named H. Bridgeman Grimley, and I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page. The Holm Oaks was the last Hubbard novel to be published by Joseph; his next was published by Geoffrey Bles, and I shall be writing about that book very soon.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Jim Woodring's Frank, Fran, Congress of the Animals, Weathercraft and The Lute String

Earlier this year, on one of my now infrequent trips up to London (as in, central London; I still get up to south London fairly regularly to see my family... not that that has any bearing on proceedings), I picked up a hardback (first edition, naturally) of Jim Woodring's graphic novel Fran, published by Fantagraphics in 2013. As both a sequel and a prequel to Woodring's 2011 graphic novel Congress of the Animals – how it can be both things defies explanation, like much of Woodring's work – and the third such full-length graphic novel Woodring has published in the last five years – the other being 2010's Weathercraft – it made for a nice addition to my bijou Woodring collection, which I consequently retrieved from the loft – see also this post – and which basically comprises those three hardback books plus a 1998 L'Association anthology of Frank stories – titled simply Frank – and The Lute String, a slim but splendid Japanese graphic novel starring Frank, Pupshaw and Pushpaw and published by Presspop Gallery Publications in 2005.

I've no idea where I got The Lute String, but it's pretty scarce; I can only see one copy online at present, offered by an American seller for about thirty quid. I do know where I got the L'Association Frank though – in Super Heros in Paris, sometime in the early 2000s. It's a first printing, dated September 1998, but more importantly it has a numbered bookplate affixed to the title page, signed by Woodring:

Which brings me back to Fran, my copy of which also sports a signed – initials only – and numbered bookplate – unaffixed in this instance – courtesy of Gosh!, which is where I bought the book:

With its circular illogic – best appreciated in conjunction with Congress of the Animals (although that book seems to be out of print at the moment) – and the queasy, unsettling hold it exerts, Fran is typical of Jim Woodring's Frank comics – a remarkable and remarkably consistent body of work. Indeed, one could compare Fran with the stories collected in Frank, most of which are around twenty years old, and discern no real difference in either quality or style, although I suppose that shouldn't really come as a surprise given the hermetically sealed nature of the universe in which Frank exists. Even so, I think I would still point the Woodring/Frank neophyte to the story "Gentleman Manhog" – or "Gentilhomme porc" as the L'Association edition of Frank has it – as being the Frank story par excellence: a savagely ironic tale of degradation and enlightenment, one which evidently inspired Woodring enough that he reprised and expanded on it for Weathercraft.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Beautiful Darkness and Beauty: Graphic Novels by Kerascoët, Vehlmann and Hubert (Drawn & Quarterly / NBM, 2014)

Continuing the intermittent posts on graphic novels – both old and new(ish) – that I've read recently(ish), here's a pair of remarkable books from last year, both of which boast extraordinary artwork by cartooning duo Kerascoët, alias Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset:

Beautiful Darkness, written by Fabien Vehlmann and published in hardback by Drawn & Quarterly in February 2014 (the copy seen here is a first impression; the book has since reprinted), and Beauty, written – and coloured – by Hubert and published by NBM in October 2014 (both books translated from French editions).

Of the two, Beautiful Darkness is probably the more celebrated. J. Caleb Mozzocco, in his roundup of the best comics and graphic novels of 2014 (a post which proved extremely useful in my hunt for graphic novels I'd overlooked last year), noted, "I don't think I know anyone that read this that didn't feel powerfully affected by it, whether they liked it or not", while more recently, in the letters pages of Saga #27, Brian K. Vaughan had this to say:

Wait, is Beautiful Darkness my new favorite graphic novel of all time?... I finished reading Drawn & Quarterly's edition of this glorious French comic from watercolor painter Kerascoët and writer Fabien Vehlmann a few weeks back, but not a day has gone by since then that I haven't thought about the book. I guess you could call the story a kind of fairy tale about human nature, but it's WAY more harrowing than that, as evidenced by an early image that's probably the most powerful and affecting splash page in the history of the medium. Truly, I dare you to pick it up and disagree with me.

There's not much I can add to that, except to suggest that good as Beautiful Darkness is, I actually think Beauty is the richer, more rewarding read. Beauty also features in Mozzocco's 'best of', but at number 12 (of 13) in the list, as opposed to Beautiful Darkness, which nabbed the number 2 spot; whereas for me it's right up there with the graphic novel which topped Mozzocco's chart, Michael DeForge's Ant Colony. I found Beauty just as arresting as Beautiful Darkness, but in a less showy way – perhaps a consequence of the simpler lines, flatter colours and densely panelled pages. But there's also, I think, more depth to the thing, and not merely because of the greater extent (150 pages as opposed to Beautiful Darkness's 100). The story of a peasant girl who gets more than she bargained for when she's granted exceptional beauty, and set against a backdrop of grandeur, squalor and the changing seasons, the narrative shows how man's basest desires cause wars to be fought and kingdoms to fall. So it goes.