TRACKING MARK HANSOM
Welcome back! Unless of course you’ve just heard of Mark Hansom and/or Dancing Tuatara Press and selected this volume to start with; in which case, welcome aboard!
To supply a brief recap of what has gone before, and how events lined up that led up to this, the penultimate volume in Ramble House’s program to reprint all of the author’s known supernatural novels and short fiction.
Mark Hansom first came to my attention when the late Karl Edward Wagner used his column in The Twilight Zone Magazine as a bully pulpit to call attention to thirty-nine novels that he labeled as “the best novels” in three areas of the horror genre. The categories were “Supernatural Horror”, “Non-Supernatural Horror”, and “Science-Fictional Horror”. If one is familiar with Wagner’s long-running series of “The Year’s Best Horror Fiction” it will come as no surprise that the lists are indicative of a man extremely well-read, not only in traditional sources, but in literature in general (after all, shouldn’t works such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian be considered “horror novels”? Thus, Wagner presented a broad-based list that ranged from familiar classics such as Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer to such obscure works as H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary (of which only four-hundred copies were printed and only a couple of dozen distributed. Another obscure title on the list was The Shadow on the House by one Mark Hansom. Over the years I had come to consider Karl’s tastes in fiction to be exemplary, so I began to track down not only the titles on his lists with which I was unfamiliar, but also by cross-referencing with the Bleiler Checklist other works by unfamiliar names such as Walter S. Masterman, R.R. Ryan, Walter Owen, and of course, Mark Hansom.
Inter-library loan was helpful with some volumes, and specialist booksellers were able to provide others. Some proved to be extremely difficult to find from any source. In the case of Hansom, I learned that he had authored a total of seven novels, of which six were identified as supernatural horror, with The Madman identified as being a non-supernatural thriller.
Slowly but surely I began to acquire copies of Hansom’s books in conditions ranging from a beautiful copy of The Beasts of Brahm in the rare dustjacket (of which less than a dozen such are known to exist) to Xerox copies kindly provided by fellow collectors (in the case of the present volume, I’ve yet to see a physical copy of the first edition, which after some twenty years of collecting and researching speaks to the scarcity of his works in the original editions.)
One thing that became readily apparent (at least in my point of view) was that The Shadow on the House was far from being Hansom’s best novel! While the book is an extremely impressive first novel, the theme (which involves a possibly unreliable narrator, with seemingly supernatural occurrences proving to have rational explanations) has certainly been done before and executed more smoothly. Hansom was at his best when allowed to let his imagination run unfettered and explore purely supernatural themes such as the revival of the dead and the psychic manipulation of the living (a recurring motif in his work, with this volume being an excellent example).
I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Wagner directly about his selection of The Shadow on the House as opposed to The Beasts of Brahm, (which I consider the perfect blend of the supernatural and mystery genres in that without the supernatural element the mystery could not possibly exist), or my personal favorite, The Master of Souls, in which Hansom fully explores the theme of his antagonist striking down his victims from beyond the grave, a motif began in The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey and revisited in the present volume. Karl wouldn’t say whether or not he’d have changed the list, but did allow that as of its composition he hadn’t read any of Hansom’s other titles . . . Fittingly enough, not only did Karl re-introduce Mark Hansom to horror aficionados with lists in The Twilight Zone Magazine, this edition of The Ghost of Gaston Revere was prepared from a Xerox of the book that once belonged to him. (The Xerox copy was kindly provided by bookseller Daniel Breen).
Such is the scarcity of Hansom’s books in their first (or second) editions that even well-connected scholars and collectors are unlikely to be able to assemble a full set of his works. However, with the publication of this volume and the forthcoming reissue of The Master of Souls, the publishing program that began in 2000 with the Midnight House edition of The Beasts of Brahm (which is currently available at www.darkmidhouse.com) will have reached its end—or has it?
I pose the question as information on “Mark Hansom” the man is several orders of magnitude more difficult to obtain than copies of his books.
We do know that “Mark Hansom” was a pseudonym, and that no one of that name actually existed. Sadly, we also know that there is no paper trail from either Wright and Brown or Mellifont pointing to the author’s real identity.
Several theories have been put forward, including a suggestion that “Mark Hansom” and “Rex Dark” were one and the same. The logic behind this was that the author used the former for supernatural material and the latter for more straightforward mysteries. This sounds good until we consider that both The Shadow on the House and The Madman are non-supernatural and that the styles of Dark and Hansom are considerably different. A slightly more credible theory espoused by a noted British scholar was that “Mark Hansom” was yet another pseudonym utilized by the prolific Charles Cannell. Cannell is more familiar to modern readers as “Jack Mann” and “E. Charles Vivian”, but these were hardly the only pen-names that he used.
The Cannell theory merits a closer examination than the Rex Dark idea, as an author as prolific as Cannell could certainly have found time to grind out another half-dozen novels over an eight-year period and Cannell was well able to alter his style when called upon to do so. As an example, very few people when presented with Maker of Shadows and City of Wonder would guess that they were written by the same man.) However, there are elements that an author generally finds difficult to mask . . . I’ve suggested that Mark Hansom was from the upper-class and there’s an element of class-consciousness bordering on snobbery that shows up whenever he refers to a characters social status. This sort of ingrained attitude or world-view is very hard for an author to mask. It shows up repeatedly in Hansom’s works and never in Cannell’s.
Charles Cannell was well-traveled and it shows, his descriptions of foreign climes are those of a man remembering with a reportorial eye for detail places that he’s been. On the other hand when Hansom is forced by the plot to describe another country, the description is sketchy, as though cribbed from an encyclopedia. Another telling difference is the very matter of travel itself . . . Cannell was obviously fond of air travel and intensely interested in aviation. If his characters are to move from one place to another, there will almost certainly be a painstaking description of the airplane involved, its capacity, and possibly even a brief history of its use. Hansom is perfectly content to inform us that the characters flew from London to Paris and get on with the story. With these factors considered, it would seem that neither hypothesis stands up under scrutiny.
Let me first say that I consider the school of literary criticism that claims that you can discern an author’s beliefs from his works, and my own theory, which is built upon internal evidence in the novels, the elements of style that are from the subconscious and thus very difficult to hide, as for the most part the author is unaware of these literary “tics”. For example, if an author is fond of cats, it’s likely that if a feline is mentioned, there will be a fairly thorough description of said cat, whether relevant to the story or not. These literary tics may also take the form of the overuse of a certain word or phrase (has one ever read fifty pages of Danielle Steele without encountering the word “bitter-sweet”, or the same length of H.P. Lovecraft without seeing something described as “eldritch”?) Or, these tics may even be a recurring motif such as Michael Shea’s use of enormous insects or arachnids. In the case of Mark Hansom there appears a deeply ingrained class-consciousness that would lead to the conclusion that the author came from an upper-class background.
To expand on this and gradually begin to fit the puzzle pieces together, other internal evidence suggests that he was of an age too young to have participated in WWI. Any mention of the Great War lacks the detail that would be expected of someone who was there. While there is no paper-trail to prove this, I would suggest that the man we know as “Mark Hansom” worked at Wright & Brown in some capacity and that after WWII he returned to the publishing business at Mellifont. At the time, it was a general practice to wealthy families to have their offspring get a taste of the world of commerce whether the income was actually needed or not. The publishing business was considered a very suitable place for a gentleman to work, (an example within the genre would be Sir Charles Birkin’s stint as an editor for Philip Allan). What makes this scenario even more plausible to me is the later publication of several of Hansom’s novels by Mellifont.
There’s certainly nothing unusual about Mellifont reprinting genre novels, they reprinted just about anything that came their way, ranging from the classics to modern novels off all sorts. What is unusual is that Hansom’s novels were published in an abridged format. While these abridgements are extensive enough to seriously impair the texts for a purist, the original source material certainly can’t be considered excessively long (the average Hansom novel is about 65,000 words). The savings to the publisher in terms of printing costs couldn’t have been more than a few pennies per copy, with the small print runs done by Mellifont, the cost of having a junior editor prepare the abridgment would exceed any savings gained from producing a slightly shorter book. The only thing that makes sense would be if the author himself were on hand to edit the books. The timeline adds up and allows for the author to have served in the war and returned to the publishing business for a short stint before returning home to run the family’s business ventures.
An accurate picture? At least until some relative comes forward or the business records of Wright & Brown or Mellifont Press surface this may be as close as we get to biographical information on the mysterious Mr. Hansom . . .