With the release of From the Depths: And Other Strange Tales of the Sea in the summer of 2018, British Library Publishing began Tales of the Weird, a new series of anthologies and collections which has since grown to 23 titles and counting. The series sees books, novellas, and short stories “recovered from obscurity for the 21st century,” bringing to light “tales of inexplicable events and encounters with the unknown” which have been “exhumed from the rare pages of literary magazines and newspaper serials to thrill once more.”
Be it Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, which collects 18 turn-of-the-century stories of hauntings not reprinted since their original publication; The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson, a selection of the strangest tales from the author of cosmic horror; or Haunted Houses: Two Novels, which reprints An Uninhabited House and Fairy Water, two delightfully spooky and comic novels from Victorian author Charlotte Riddell, the Tales of the Weird series ably demonstrates that there's more to weird fiction than just H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood (although the latter does get his own collection in Roarings from Further Out: Four Weird Novellas by Algernon Blackwood).
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Speaking via Skype with Jonny Davidson—the production editor for British Library Publishing—gives a bit of a glimpse into how this incredible series of collections came to be. Given that British Library Publishing is connected to the British Library itself, whose collections began with the founding of the British Museum's Department of Printed Books in 1753, one can imagine that this massive archive presents interesting opportunities.
“It was actually five separate titles that were being published in the same season,” Davidson explains. “That was the beginning of the series. We had two titles proposed by Mike Ashley, who is a sort of anthologist. He'd come to us with proposals for Glimpses of the Unknown, which was going to be entirely made up of stories that never been reprinted before, which he'd found from research at the Library. That's the kind of title that most applies in terms of the key opportunities of working in the building, which has this wealth of printed material from the last–well, from history.”
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As editor Mike Ashley recalls in an email, he hadn't realized From the Depths was the start of the series.
“I had a desire to compile a volume of never previously reprinted stories which became Glimpses of the Unknown and during that discussion, or in emails afterwards, Jonny asked whether I could also compile a volume of nautical horror stories, which became From the Depths, and railway horror stories, which became The Platform Edge–the latter a title suggested by Jonny,” writes Ashley. “I think our discussions did give some structure to Tales of the Weird which at the start had yet to take on the form it has now, so it was great to be in at the start, and great to be part of what is becoming a significant series.”
Additionally, there were proposals at the start from Andrew Smith, a major voice in the Gothic and ghost stories community, who wanted to revive some Charlotte Riddell stories; a selection of Christmas stories being curated by the Library's Tanya Kirk, who had delved down into the archives and found some great material, which would become Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings; and finally, Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End, proposed by another curator at the library, Greg Buzwell, who had been “researching and sifting through and collating material for a new anthology of fiction,” as Davidson puts it.
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“We looked at all of these proposals we had and thought, 'Actually, it would be a good time to combine all of these into a more cohesive approach to Gothic/weird/supernatural fiction,” says Davidson. “That's really where the Tales of the Weird was born. We approached a designer to create an aesthetic to link it all together and based on favorable feedback from that we started doing four new books per season. We're as pleased and surprised as anyone that we're still able to do it.”
Davidson says that it's struck a chord with a devoted readership, who have become collectors looking forward to the next ones the Library will produce—which is “absolutely brilliant from our perspective,” he states enthusiastically.
The Platform Edge
Given the fact that Mike Ashley is so readily identified with the short story format—having edited over 200 collections, many in the “Mammoth Book of” series—one imagines that he has a unique perspective on what makes Tales of the Weird so uniquely appealing. When asked what a Tales of the Weird book means, as opposed to something for a different publisher, he breaks it down beautifully, starting off by explaining that it's important it's part of a series.
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“Anthologies I have done for other publishers have tended to be one-offs, except for the Mammoth series for Robinson Books, but 'Mammoth' only referred to their size, not their content,” Ashley writes. “Tales of the Weird is specific in being weird tales, but sufficiently broad to allow a great variety of fiction. For instance the fact that I could compile Doorway to Dilemma, including stories that are essentially puzzle stories requiring the reader to think more about what's happening and engage the brain, not just the emotions. Such a book would be difficult to sell as a one off, but it fits very well into the diversity of this series.”
Ashley also points to installments in the series from other editors with which he's “really fascinated,” such as Dangerous Dimensions, edited by Henry Bartholomew—“speculative tales of our universe’s mathematics and physics gone awry”—as they allow for some very original story plots not normally reprinted.
It's a very fine balance to tread on this front, however, because while Davidson is personally interested in bringing back as many of these lesser-known writers as possible, the series needs to have enough of a balance to make it commercially viable, as well. In the end, British Library Publishing's goal is always to bring back money to the Library.
“The more we can hook in people with a known author, perhaps they then might be likely to explore something they might not have found before,” says Davidson, offering up the example of The Outcast: And Other Dark Tales, a collection of stories by E.F. Benson.
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“He's very, very well-known within the community but not necessarily as well known in a general non-horror readership,” Davidson explains. “Publishing him alongside an anthology of Vernon Lee [A Phantom Lover: And Other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee]—who people well-versed in the history of the weird and the history of supernatural fiction will likely have heard of, but they're still less likely to have read a full collection of hers compared to someone like E.F. Benson—gives us opportunity to try to span a decent breadth and bring back these voices and also reposition them within a sort of canon.”
Davidson continues on to say that, just because there are only a few people that are commonly known now as being the big names of ghost story and supernatural storytelling from that time, with Tales of the Weird, they're trying to repopulate that map, saying, “Look: actually, all of these people were operating that time, with all these people creating and adding to this tradition, which is important.”
In trying to represent that area of fiction and the development of that fiction with as many voices as possible, Davidson says that's where the multiple-author, themed anthologies are very helpful.
“We can include people in there who might not have even written enough stories to have their own, single-author volume,” Davidson notes. “It's an amazing experience when Mike has been working on an anthology and he comes back with notes to say, 'I can't find anything out about this person.' It's like, 'Oh, wow: if you can't find anything, this person must be truly obscure.' Then, of course, you run into people writing in literary or pulp magazines under pseudonyms and trying to figure out which pseudonym is which and all this kind of thing.”
For both Glimpses of the Unknown and The Outcast, Ashley states that he was “delighted” to discover two previously un-reprinted stories by Benson, mentioning that it's very unusual to find previously uncollected stories by an author as well-known or as well-researched as he. Additionally, for Queens of the Abyss, he found a “very atmospheric” forgotten story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, best-known for the enduring children's classics, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
“In Glimpses of the Unknown I used a story by Philippa Forest—at least, that was the name used on a short series of occult detective stories in Pearson's Magazine,” Ashley continues. “I'd known of the series for many years but hadn't checked out the author before so it was a real surprise to discover that she was really Marion Holmes, an active suffragette who spent time in prison for her beliefs.”
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However, it's the truly unknown stories which have the most fascinating stories behind them.
“There was a small weekly magazine called Yes or No, published before the First World War which ran all kinds of stories including many weird tales,” Ashley says, stating that this magazine is extremely rare, as The British Library's copies were destroyed during the Blitz, meaning that the editor knows of no complete collection anywhere in the world. Ashley has, himself, tracked copies down over the years, but even now has barely a third of the magazine's run.
“Many of the stories are somewhat formulaic and predictable but now and then you discover some little gems, amongst them several stories by Jack Edwards, about whom I still know next to nothing, but who at his best was capable of producing highly unusual and atmospheric stories, such as 'Haunted' that I used in Glimpses of the Unknown,” reflects Ashley. “It takes a very long time and years of reading and research to find the rare and unusual, but it is so satisfying when you do. I just keep on looking.”
Queens of the Abyss
While the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down the British Library for much of the past year, making it a challenging thing not having as immediate or prolonged access to the collections, Davidson states that there were points in the year where, for a few weeks, the collections were back up and running, so they were allowed to make requests and receive some materials.
“They were focus points for trying to get as much as possible for working on future titles, so there are other things going on at the moment,” Davidson explains, continuing on to say part of it has also been helped by the fact that the Library has a long-running and efficient digitization process, where they've been going through chunks of the collection, digitizing books and making them available for readers to access remotely: “So, some of our efforts have been held there, where we've been able to consult journals or periodicals that we might not be able to, physically, at the moment.”
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Ashley, however, says that it's not really affected how he works at all: “After all, writing, researching and editing is quite a solitary role and I just carry on as before. As for sourcing the stories, I'm fortunate in that I have an extensive collection of magazines and books, well over 30,000, which has allowed me to identify stories without having to rely all the time on the British Library's own resources. There have been occasions when the BL has had to track down an especially obscure story for me, but for most of the anthologies, especially Glimpses of the Unknown, they are the result of over fifty years of collecting and researching.”
Because of all of this, fans of Tales of the Weird will have titles which they can look forward to this fall. While Davidson states that he's not sure how many he's supposed to reveal, he does reveal one title in the works.
“We have a Cornish Gothic book, which is going to be very interesting,” Davidson says as the interview concludes. “Focusing again on some of the regional literature and that blend of folk literature, coming across into the strange and the weird. It's been challenging for many reasons but the fiction has largely been achievable. Maybe there are certain areas where we haven't been able to search quite so widely as we would normally have liked to, but I'm still pretty pleased with what we've managed to put together.”