In Search of Lost Literature: Unearthing Gothic Gems at Valancourt Books

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(This was originally written for and posted at After Dark In the Playing Fields in 2010, by my partner in the enterprise at that time, who shall henceforth be known as A Kindred Spirit)

‘Valancourt? and who was he?’ cry the young people. Valancourt, my dears, was the hero of one of the most famous romances which ever was published in this country. The beauty and elegance of Valancourt made your young grandmammas’ gentle hearts to beat with respectful sympathy. He and his glory have passed away. Ah, woe is me that the glory of novels should ever decay… Inquire at Mudie’s, or the London Library, who asks for ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ now? Have not even ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ ceased to frighten? Alas! our best novels are but for a season…“

–William Makepeace Thackeray

Several years ago, I returned to upstate NY after spending several months living in semi-tropical Taiwan. That winter was particularly cold and I spent much of it huddled under woolen blankets on the couch reading anything that was within arm’s reach. Eventually, I had to venture out to an actual bookstore, where on a whim I picked up a reprint of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian gothic thriller Uncle Silas (1865). To my surprise, I became completely engrossed in the plot twists set in its creepy conspiracy-laden corridors. All too soon, the book was finished and I was unable to find anything remotely like it.

Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I had two newly reprinted gothic novels from Valancourt Books in the mail before I could despair too much. (As you can see from above, more have followed.)

Valancourt Books is an independent small (micro) press founded in late 2004 and presently based in Kansas City, specializing in quality new editions of rare literature from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. They now have over 102 books in print, with many more on the way, in a variety of genres, but mainly focusing on Gothic, Romantic and Victorian literature.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask James D. Jenkins, the publisher and editor of Valancourt Books, some questions about this type of literature and the appeal of this genre to readers in the twenty-first century.

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OTB: What makes these types of works considered “gothic”–and how did you become interested in this type of literature? What is your favorite work of this type?

JDJ: Really, looking back, I think I’ve always been drawn to the Gothic. I remember one summer as a child when my dad sent me to the public library and told me to bring home a classic book to read. I came home with Dracula, which apparently wasn’t what he had in mind. But, as far as the types of Gothic works that Valancourt Books specializes in, I first became interested in those as an undergraduate. I recall being in the university library one afternoon and stumbling across this old book in a black binding called The Castle of Otranto. Something about it intrigued me, and I took it home and stayed up late that night reading it. I was totally riveted by it (and still am!) I started reading other Gothic novels and was completely fascinated by books like Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. The press, of course, is named after the hero of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I first stumbled upon in the bookstore at the Roma Termini train station when I was 20. I read it for the first time in a medieval castle I stayed at in a place called Montagnana, Italy. I’ve really been hooked ever since.

As far as what makes them Gothic, I guess that’s a little hard to define. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it. Most of them do share common elements, such as being set in ruined castles or monasteries and featuring heroines in distress and dastardly villains, as well as common set pieces like skeletons, phantoms, rusty daggers, old manuscripts, and the like. Typically in the old Gothic novels, those published between 1764 and 1830, there are two main types-–the “terror Gothic,” which attempted to terrify the reader through mystery and suspense, and the “horror Gothic,” which tended to shock readers with explicit sex and violence. As for a favorite, I don’t know if I could pick one. I really love The Castle of Otranto, which I’ve read repeatedly, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, which always amazes me. Among the minor Gothics, I’m a huge fan of The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) and Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell (1798), two of Jane Austen’s “Horrid Novels.”*

What made you decide to found a press? I know I was fortunate enough to stumble across your website several years ago–there really were no other publishers of these kinds of novels at that time. Have you encountered any particular difficulties unique to this kind of business?

I think you were actually our first customer! I’m glad you found us! The short story of how the press was founded is that I graduated law school in 2004 and couldn’t find a job. I had a lot of time on my hands in between applying for work, and by that time I had read all of the dozen or so classic Gothic novels published by Oxford and Penguin. I wanted to read more, but they just weren’t available. I started thinking, “Someone should be publishing more of these,” and then somehow it just hit me that rather than wait for someone else to do it, I could start doing it. So, I started spending my free time typing The Animated Skeleton and The Castle of Ollada from microfiche, and now, over 100 books later, I’ve never looked back!

 Some of these works could rightly be considered, for lack of a better word, the “bestsellers” of their day. Why did the majority of these works go out of print, in spite of their original popularity? Why did certain works like those of Radcliffe or Walpole, remain in print over the years? Were they really that much better in terms of story quality than the ones that faded into relative obscurity?

That’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it. Just like today, I’m sure a lot of these books were published back then to critical disdain and poor sales and didn’t go into a second edition. Many of them quite deservedly fell out of print. But then there are some that make you scratch your head. Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine (1813), which we are preparing for the press at the moment, comes to mind. It was hugely popular and went through several editions, and found numerous admirers, among them Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s also incredibly funny, even two hundred years later. Why did satires of Gothic literature by writers like Austen and Thomas Love Peacock survive in print into the 21st century, while Barrett’s did not? I don’t know. The great thing is that with the greater availability of rare old texts through sources like Google Books and other electronic and print sources, more and more of these books can be rediscovered and those that were undeservedly lost can be republished in new editions.

 Despite their sometimes initial popularity, these works were often marginalized and dismissed by the critics of the time, considered pulp or cheap entertainments. Over the years, they only became of interest to academics or other specialists–do you see a value in bringing these works back into print for something other than scholarly pursuits? Are they worthwhile to the modern reader simply as historical artifacts or for an intrinsic entertainment value?

I guess that depends on taste! A lot of our readers enjoy these works simply for their entertainment value. In fact, I’ve never liked to think of them as historical artifacts and I’ve tried to encourage our editors to avoid that sort of thing in their introductions. I mean, with all the books available-–both classics and contemporary literature – why would you want to waste your time reading something that’s only worthwhile as an historical artifact? That said, I think I’d have to concede that we’ve published one or two that were of more interest for their rarity than their literary value!

Why do you think gothic literature could still resonate with readers today?

I think the Gothic has always resonated with readers. Even in ancient texts, you find mention of such things as ghosts and apparitions, and of course in early British literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays, you pretty regularly find things like phantoms and witches. These sorts of works of course gave rise to the Gothic works of authors like Walpole and Radcliffe. But I think it would be a mistake to assume that the Gothic ever really went away. In the Victorian era, you had mystery and supernatural works by writers like Wilkie Collins and Sheridan Le Fanu, and a little later popular novelists like Richard Marsh and Bram Stoker. Even in recent years, we’ve had Stephen King, Anne Rice, and now Stephenie Meyer. I think something about the Gothic, about scary stories and tales of horror and mystery, is a universal impulse-–it’s something that has always existed both in our literature and other countries’ literatures, and that I think always will.

What are your most popular titles? Do any have a surprising popularity or affect readers in unexpected ways? I would imagine that the lesser known works of Bram Stoker or perhaps the previously mentioned “Horrid Novels” would have especial appeal to someone interested in this type of literature.

You’re absolutely right. The Horrid Novels and works by authors that are better known, like Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, tend to be among our best sellers. One book that, year in, year out, is always among our bestsellers, though, and which I always find surprising, is George Brewer’s The Witch of Ravensworth (1808). It’s really a wonderful little book and I’m happy that people have discovered it, but I’m nonetheless always a little perplexed at the levels of its sales.

 I have noticed over the last few years that Valancourt Books has been expanding in scope to include titles from the later Victorian period as well as the twentieth century. What was your motivation to include these sorts of books in the catalogue? Are there still more areas you might decide to cover in the future?

Well, one thing that tends to happen when you have your own press (and especially when it’s a one-person press) is that what the press publishes tends pretty much to be whatever you’re interested in. As I’ve gotten older and read more widely in other areas, I’ve discovered new areas of interest and other obscure works that I wanted to bring back into print and share with readers. One of these is the popular literature of the 1890s, which is just an amazing decade. It’s in the 1890s that Sherlock Holmes rises to prominence, that we get characters like Dorian Gray, Dracula, and The Beetle, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s the decade where the three-volume novel that had dominated publishing for a century or more and had made books largely unaffordable to everyday readers was finally abandoned in favor of inexpensive, one-volume editions that were accessible to all. So we start to see just an explosion of popular, thrilling, cheap novels, many of which are truly fascinating and worthy of new attention. We’ve also started doing some gay-themed literature from the early 20th century, which is another interest of mine, and something that’s getting a lot of scholarly attention these days. Presently we don’t have plans for any new series, although we plan to continue expanding our 18th century and Victorian collections, which have been gradually growing.

What titles will be forthcoming over the next year or so? Is there anything particularly intriguing or obscure that you’re still trying to track down for future publication? Are there some known works so hard to locate that original copies to work from do not exist or are too rare to even get access to?

JDJ: Probably the two that are the most highly anticipated are the final two “Horrid Novels”: Horrid Mysteries by Carl Grosse and Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine, probably the two rarest of the lot. Although probably twenty, thirty years ago, there would have been works so rare that you couldn’t get copies of them, that’s not really the case anymore. With online library catalogs like Worldcat and COPAC, it’s pretty quick and easy to find out what libraries hold a given book. And although the books we publish are usually so rare that the copies do not circulate, with modern reproduction and scanning technology, the books can usually be copied or scanned for us (for an often lofty price!) For example, The Forest of Valancourt (1813), which we published in hardcover, survives in only one known copy–-at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and we were able to get a photocopy of it so we could republish it. There are a couple old Gothic novels mentioned in reference works that we have not been able to track down (the most notable is probably W. H. Ireland’s Bruno; or, The Sepulchral Summons), but for some of these lost works, we have been unable to verify after extensive research that they ever really existed in the first place.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. As always, I wish you and everyone at Valancourt Books every possible success for making these titles available to everyone.

JDJ: Thanks, Jessica, always a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity to share some info about Valancourt Books with you and your readers!

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Valancourt Books’ list of currently published works can be found here; they are widely available at Amazon or other booksellers.

*The “Horrid Novels” refers to a selection of 18th century Gothic fiction mentioned by Jane Austen in her gothic satire, Northanger Abbey. Most of the ‘horrid novels’ were believed to be inventions of Austen until the early twentieth century. For a complete list of titles, see here. Valancourt Books has published five of the seven and has plans to release the other two in the future.

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