THE LOST CLUB JOURNAL

Edgar Jepson's Garden

by John Pelan 

Edgar Jepson's long and productive career spanned the Yellow Nineties through the Edwardian and Neo-Georgian periods of British letters. Jepson authored articles, reviews, short stories, novels, and even wrote propaganda bits during the Great War. His talents were employed on everything from lost-race novels (The Moon Gods 1930) to editing The Win the War Cookery Book and coining such slogans for the war effort as "Eat Less Bread!" Other early works included a journalistic account of the exploits of Captain Beames of the Indian Army and a rather popular adaptation of the French play Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc. Jepson also served as editor or contributor to a number of the finer literary journals including Vanity Fair, The Saturday Evening Post, The Smart Set and numerous others.

While many of his mysteries and mainstream novels are still enjoyable reads decades after their first publication, it's primarily for this one novel of supernatural horror that he's remembered today. #19 was initially published by Mills & Boon in 1910 with a U.S. edition following under the title of The Garden at #19. As I find the latter a bit more picturesque, we have retained it for the Midnight House edition of the novel.

We don't think of Edgar Jepson today as a fantasist, most of his novels were entertaining mainstream fiction, with a goodly amount of mysteries thrown into the mix. His adaptations of the work of Maurice Leblanc proved to be very popular as were his "Pollyooly" and "Lady Noggs" novels. Several of these works were adapted for film or stage, regrettably, no one thought to adapt his more imaginative works to the silver screen. A film of the present book by a capable director such as Jacques Tourneur might well have been a classic.

Interestingly enough, Jepson displays an interest in the realm of the fantastic as early in his career as 1898 with the Utopian/lost race fantasy The Keepers of the People. The seeds that later bore fruit in the present volume began with the publication of The Horned Shepherd, a lovely little novella first published in 1904 in an edition of only 100 copies (in wraps) and later reissued in 1927 with woodcuts by Wilfred Jones. I've not been able to ascertain if this was actually a commercial project, though evidence seems to suggest that it was not. Every copy I've seen bears a gift inscription from the author, so it would appear that this may have been an author-subsidized venture and the book was intended as a keepsake. If it was a commercial project, it seems Jepson must have given away nearly as many copies as were sold.

Jepson could be considered one of the last survivors of the decadents, though the author points out that the term decadent as applied to the lively and energetic group of British authors is hardly accurate (more on this below). Born in 1863, Jepson's first novel appeared (according to the author's memoirs) under the name Jean F. Darrel Poges in 1886. As of this writing, I've been unable to verify that such a book actually exists, so we may take Jepson at his word or consider that Sibyl Falcon in 1895 truly marks his literary debut. This latter proved very popular and Wolff remarks in his Nineteenth Century Fiction of this adventure tale: "juicy, sensational, sadistic: girl warrior, naked black villains, much stabbing, strangling, etc."

As to the matter of his literary circle of the 1890's being called "decadent"… Jepson in his memoirs reproduces a charming and erudite letter composed by Ernest Dowson after a night of absinthe drinking. Jepson argues for the greatness of Dowson based in no small part on his ability to write a compelling and interesting letter after a night of drinking seven absinthes! After all, how can such a man be said to be in decay? As the green fairy seems to have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence among certain modern writers of the fantastic one is given to wonder if the intent is to mirror the achievements of such men as Jepson, Dowson, Gilchrist and their circle… If that's the case, I would suggest that perhaps the absinthe of today is not of the same potency as that enjoyed by Dowson a century ago, for certainly none of these moderns write so well as he.

Jepson proves to be an odd study in contrasts, he wrote popular novels that were, if not best sellers at least enough in demand to make for a relatively comfortable existence for the author and his family. From the same typewriter also flowed popular romances and mystery fiction, as well as literary criticism that met the exacting standards of Ford Maddox Ford. The latter may well have kept Jepson from enjoying a greater popularity in the United States as he found much of the United States literary establishment to be as filled with the same sort of jackanapes and buffoons that pontificate in print to this very day.

After the publication of his commentary "Words and the Poet" for the English Review, the author was contacted by the editrix of Poetry (the official organ of the Modern United States Poets), with a request to reprint the article. Further she wished that Jepson would write an overview of this prestigious literary organ, doing the same for the US as he'd done for England. Poetry was a product of the Chicago Renaissance that not only paid poets, but also awarded prizes of a fairly substantial amount. Many interesting things came out of the Chicago Renaissance, including the classic supernatural novel Fingers of Fear. Unfortunately, Poetry shared none of the inventiveness or atmosphere of Nicolson's novel; being instead devoted to reams of free-verse of the most banal and unsophisticated sort, generally rhapsodies to trees that would have been better served left standing than being chopped down to make the paper for the printing of bad verse. After poring over twenty-five issues of the magazine, Jepson found that it contained little of merit, and when they actually did acquire a worthwhile piece by T. S. Eliot his work was snubbed from receiving a monetary award in favor of something by Vachel Lindsay.

Jepson geared his essay to illume precisely why verses that contain lines such as "his hair was black as a sheep's wool that is black" ought to be called many things, but "poetry" is not one of the things that they should be called. The essay wrapped up with a full-blown appreciation of Eliot and a general denunciation of the presumed target audience, whom Jepson described as a type defined as "the plop-eyed bungaroo, the Great-Hearted Young Westerner on the make". Ezra Pound gleefully reprinted the essay in the Little Review. Of course, the Chicago papers reviled Jepson for months for failing to appreciate the subtlety of mind that can give us such an immortal line as the one pertaining to sheep's wool quoted above…

Jepson's writing was always in high demand by the literary magazines and his articles appeared regularly in most of the better literary magazines. Jepson served for a time as the editor of Vanity Fair, where he was able to perform the dual services of publishing quality literature, including Richard Middleton's poetry and skewering the politicos of the day. As Jepson writes:

"It is foolish to try and edit a paper without a fixed policy, and since it was the function of a club-land weekly to keep politics pure and politicians up to their work and deal faithfully with all kinds of rogues, I made it my policy to run as near to the law of libel as I possibly could all the time, and I stuck to it. About an open rogue, there was no need to bother: I libeled him with exact truthfulness; he fired in a writ- as a pledge of good faith, I suppose; the matter ended. But to tell the truth about a less open rogue without landing the paper with a doubtful and expensive libel action was a very different matter."

While certainly not our focus here, I'd warrant that a volume of Jepson's literary criticism might be as fascinating a chronicle of the first half of the twentieth century as one could wish for. Jepson seemingly knew everyone that was worth knowing in British literary circles and was good friends with other authors ranging from the popular Marie Belloc-Lowndes and that greatest of British Literary Men, Ford Maddox Ford, to the obscure and sadly neglected men of genius like Richard Middleton and Ernest Dowson. In fact, as large an amount of credit for Middleton's posthumous fame goes to Jepson as it does to Gawsworth. Jepson for purely altruistic reasons marketed Middleton's "The Ghost Ship" to an editor who agreed to purchase the tale for the astonishing sum of £25, a sum that represents a good deal more than the poet had earned from any of previous work. Sadly, just as this good news reached Jepson, so too did the news that Middleton had killed himself in Brussels.

Middleton of course left enough prose fiction of a weird or supernatural nature to fill a substantial volume, and editor Douglas A. Anderson is preparing the book for publication by Midnight House. Sadly, the book will appear over ninety years after the poet's tragic death at twenty-nine. We must commend both Jepson and Gawsworth for their efforts to keep Middleton's legacy alive.

Jepson's memoirs indicate a passion for all that is great and awe-inspiring in literature, both in poetry and in prose. It's no surprise that he was a lifelong friend of Arthur Machen and the present work is in all possible ways a tribute to the great author without descending to the level of pastiche.

Jepson writes of Machen:

"the genuine man of letters and master of a great style. Some of the passages in "The Hill of Dreams" are of a richness and beauty that are not surpassed by any I know in English. His culture, mystical and considerably old French, on a classical basis, was profound, and his theory of Ecstasy has always satisfied me. The great things, great love, great music, great literature, great art do induce ecstasy; they set us outside ourselves, and in touch with reality, with the more subtil working of the Life Force, a state as devoutly to be sought as it is seldom attained."

While the appreciation of Machen ran high in the British literary circles, the enthusiasm was not shared in the US, where H. L. Mencken thundered, "This is not the kind of stuff we want in God's Own Country." No doubt this was true, and we've been many years making up for such lapses in judgement.

 

The Horned Shepherd is, like the present volume, is an obvious tribute to Machen, with whom Jepson remained friends his entire life. While the earlier book is not an inconsequential work, it is still the work of a young writer feeling his way through a subject too awesome for his talents to fully encompass. With The Garden at #19, published in 1910 we have a work by a writer at the very height of his powers, well acquainted with numerous members of the Golden Dawn, and ready to tackle the subject of the Gods walking the Earth again. While only six years had elapsed between the publication dates of the two books, Jepson's talent had grown by several orders of magnitude and he'd no less than seven books in the six-year period.

A man born somewhat out of his time, Jepson was too much the pragmatic commercial writer to be a real decadent and too much the man of letters to be entirely suitable in the guise of a mere commercial wordsmith. His long literary career is notable for flashes of genuine brilliance that shone through the generally uninspired mainstream novels that no doubt sold far better than his fantasies, but have been all but forgotten today. The literary legacy of the Jepson family itself is an impressive one, with the eldest son, Selwyn authoring a number of enjoyable thrillers, though sadly none convey the sense of awe and wonder his father captured in The Garden at #19.

Margaret Jepson was actually considered by her father to be a better writer than either himself or Selwyn, and the elder Jepson singles out her novel Via Panama as an example of this alleged literary superiority. While certainly very well written, I feel that a father's pride over his child's accomplishments may have blinded Jepson just a bit… I'll admit to not having read nearly as much of Margaret's work as that of her father or brother, but while what I've read thus far may certainly be held up in favorable comparison with Edgar Jepson's lesser works, nowhere does she achieve the heights of imagination and mood attained by his greater books.

The Jepson literary tradition carries on in granddaughter Fay Weldon, who more than either Margaret or Selwyn shares Edgar's affinity for the mystic and the presence of the supernatural. Jepson himself seems to have been a very interesting person to know. A collector of netsuke, his collection was for many years one of the most admired in England, eventually he sold off all but a few choice pieces. While in many ways an Edwardian traditionalist, his views on "free love" and the practice thereof ultimately became a source of much turmoil in his family. While he himself was inclined toward a strong belief in the realm of the supernatural, unlike many of his contemporaries, he quickly identified Theosophy for the nonsense it was and considered both the Besant and Blavatsky branches to be two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

Jepson was certainly enough of a mystic to fill the novel that follows with as much of the sense of terror and ecstasy one finds in the best of Machen and Blackwood. In fact so successful was Jepson that the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley compared the novel favorably to Blackwood's pantheistic works and indeed lifted much from #19 for his "Hymn to Pan". Of course Crowley was notorious for the use of his reviews as grindstones for his various axes, and his dismissal of Blackwood is ludicrous. However, I think you'll agree that in this one novel at least, Jepson reaches the heights attained by Machen and Blackwood at their best, and had Jepson written nothing but this book, he would still deserve mention when discussing the finest fantasists of the last century.

There's a great deal of remarkable work in Jepson's oeuvre; the stories written under R. Edison Page byline for his friend Gawsworth are well worth seeking out as are his other fantasies and many of his mystery novels. An excellent starting point is the anthology Creeps, Crimes, & Thrills which features no less than nine contributions by Jepson. At the very least, this novel may now enjoy the rediscovery by a new generation of readers that it so well deserves.

Some years ago at a convention I was on a panel where the question was posed: "What literary figure would you most like to spend an evening with?" My colleagues mentioned names like Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and one (a noted SF writer) suggested John W. Campbell. I don't know who I mentioned at the time, (probably Charles Birkin, then as now my literary idol), but in retrospect I'd think one could do much worse than opting to spend an evening in the clubs in the company of Edgar Jepson.

John Pelan, Midnight House