Pages: The Books of the Beast

Timothy d’Arch Smith is an English bibliophile and book seller, his specialities being lesser-known literary figures and the occult, a combination of no little interest to Strange Flowers. Among his other books are a study of Uranian poetry and an account of his time at the Times Book Shop in the 1960s.

The Books of the Beast, meanwhile, is a 1987 miscellany of pieces stretching back as much as twenty years prior. The title piece concerns the published works of Aleister Crowley, a figure of fascination for the author ever since he was disciplined at school for ordering The Great Beast, the classic Crowley biography. “The Books of the Beast” was conceived as an introduction to a Crowley bibliography, but it is soon lost in a welter of book trade minutiae and magick ritual, enveloping the reader in a cloud of bewildering arcana.

From that cloud, however, fascinating details occasionally emerge, such as Crowley’s projected but sadly never executed volume which was to be accompanied by a box of sand – “from Mecca or Jerusalem” – for magick purposes. I’m also grateful for the introduction to Herbert Charles Pollitt, a lover of Crowley’s who danced in drag under the name of Diane de Rougy (in homage to courtesan Liane de Pougy) and was a collector of original Beardsley drawings.

Things get meta when d’Arch Smith encounters Montague Summers, himself a prodigious bibliographer, his chosen areas being witchcraft, Gothic novels and Restoration drama (“His passion for the drama of the Restoration was not unaligned to its indecencies,” notes the author). A Church of England curate in Bath and Bristol, he “came out to Rome” in 1909. “He was aroused only by devout young Catholics, their subsequent corruption giving inexhaustible pleasure.” He claimed also to be a Catholic priest, although there is no evidence beyond his own word.

Another literary curio is introduced with a riddle: “What connection has Dylan Thomas with a ticket-tout and Wallace Stevens with a pornographer? Who used the printer of Ulysses to set up the poems of Lord Alfred Douglas? Why did Cecil Day-Lewis know a slum-landlord in Brighton? Who was Kingsley Amis’s first publisher and why did Amis kill him off in one of his novels? Whom did Philip Larkin call a lazy sod?”

The answer, we learn, is one Reginald Caton. Although his management of 91 run-down properties monopolised much of his time, Caton’s Fortune Press was a major literary force in Britain, issuing the first works of Amis and Day-Lewis as well as Philip Larkin. However Caton’s shady practices were not confined to property and he was often in dispute with writers.

“Ralph Nicholas Chubb – Prophet and Pederast” introduces an inventive publisher but evidently terrible writer, working in isolation and obsessed with boy love which he raised to the level of a cult. “My staunch young brothers, I know you! Your bard has arisen at last! When you sweat at the mills I am with you. When the siren hoots, And off you run with your towels and strip to the skin and plunge From the black lock-gate in the pool and wash off the grime and the sweat.” The solitude and monomania evidently got to him, and his later manuscripts are lost Outsider artefacts, chaotic swirls of text and imagery.

Timothy d’Arch Smith works best at the intersection of arcane and obscene, as in his amusing review of a bibliography of the British Library’s erotica. Like John Waters, and Montague Summers for that matter, he developed an early obsession with obscene literature kept hidden away.

Finally an epilogue described by the author himself as “eminently skippable” rambles entertainingly. It tracks the development of the author’s interest in the occult, erotica and – of almost equal importance – cricket. High points include his haughty dismissal of spiritualism as “the bingo of the occult world” and his hilarious description of camp clairvoyant Ronald Strong (which explains the inspiration for a seer who is “regularly occupied by Red Indians” in Julian & Sandy). All of this is punctuated by intriguing snapshots of an unconventional life, with walk-ons by everyone from Soho hobohemian Ironfoot Jack to The Beatles, who turn up at an exhibition of rare books organised by the author.

Inevitably a mixed bag, The Books of the Beast has more than enough to sustain the interest of anyone drawn to the obscure, the obscene and the obsessive.

The Books of the Beast | Timothy d’Arch Smith | Crucible, 1987 | Find on WorldCat

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6 comments

  1. Ralph Chubb! I’ve had his Wiki page bookmarked for further investigation since June… Maybe now’s the time to read it.

    (10 minutes later)

    “Chubb’s books become progressively more self-involved and paranoid. Seeking to articulate his pederastic desires, he created a personal mythology which explained everything in terms only he could understand.”

    Well then.

  2. Martin Foreman

    James, your research and insights never cease to impress me. I’ve recommended Strange Flowers on today’s Twitter and Facebook messages from Arbery Books. Feel free to link to and / or message us at any time. Martin

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