For the September installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Mark Francis Johnson to tell us about his seven favorite books. Mark is one third of Hiding Press, a small publishing concern focused on experimental poetry. His most recent publications include 800 JKS (Ma Bibliotheque, 2020), Sham Refugia (Hiding Press, 2020), and How to Flit (Roof Books, 2018). His next book, Poor Fridge, is forthcoming in Fall 2021 from Documents, in Montreal. An antiquarian bookseller, he operates Hiding Place, a small rare book and record shop. He lives with his wife and three cats in Philadelphia. Below are his favorite books.
No poetry, because that would be impossible.
Oliver Onions, The Story of Ragged Robyn (1945)
Though Oliver Onions is best known today for a single classic volume of ghost stories, Widdershins, published in 1911, he wrote many, many books, in a bewildering variety of genres. My favorite of the dozen or so I've read, The Story of Ragged Robyn, is a strange, disturbing historical novel set mostly in the fens of Lincolnshire during the 17th century. It should be read ideally with as little foreknowledge as possible, so all I'll say here is that certain scenes, not necessarily the most shocking, have remained with me for decades, and that I have never elsewhere encountered anything like its tone, a sort of haunted, ineluctable dreaminess. Life stunned by fate. Get the old orange and white Penguin paperback if you can find it.
Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare (1921)
I love de la Mare—his poetry (especially his poetry for children), his stories (among his lesser-known tales, see the astonishing "The Vats"), his novels, the peculiar anthologies his extraordinarily wide reading allowed him to assemble. There's nothing like his best book, Memoirs of a Midget, a beautifully written novel at once tender, tragic, mysterious, disturbing and, in its subtle melancholy fashion, quite funny. It ranks with the great fantasies of the 20th century, and is a very moving book. Harry Mathews was a big fan, too.
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew (1851)
What riches in these four volumes! I have pilfered many, many details from them... Mayhew, a journalist and social researcher, conducted hundreds of extensive interviews with London's poor, workers in every conceivable trade, licit or illicit, throughout the 1840s and, for the fourth and concluding volume, into the 1850s. His ear for dialogue—or his assiduousness in properly recording it, rather—gives these pages a fascinating immediacy. Needless to say, the books are also wrenchingly sad and often horrifying.
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Schreber (1903)
Though I have been studying this astonishing book for nearly 25 years, and have read most of the secondary literature in English, I feel no closer to understanding Schreber than when I started. Schreber didn't set out to write a record of his psychosis, which is how this book has usually been read; these exhaustively, lucidly detailed pages were meant to buttress a legal argument against forcibly incarcerating the insane. Schreber intended to show that he was not suffering from a "clouded intellect"—and it worked. Schreber was released. But it's this very lucidity that is so disturbing: Schreber fully succeeds in establishing the complexity, depth, and horror of his psychosis. No book has ever haunted me like this one. To my mind, the two best studies of Schreber are Zvi Lothane's and Eric Santner's, though I disagree with the latter's conclusions.
Everybody's Letters by Laura Riding (1933)
Laura Riding is one of my favorite writers—poetry, prose, theory, polemics, I like it all. Among her many lesser-known books, this inscrutable experiment is my favorite. In certain subterranean ways it's been a big influence on my own writing. Riding asked friends for letters—the more banal the better, she instructed—and, after some light tampering, arranged them in three sections: British, American, and Universal. At least two of the letter writers are Riding herself, employing a pseudonym. Finally, she supplied a confounding, combative, and funny editorial postscript on the epistolary form. But why? What was her aim in producing this epistolary theory-fiction using manipulated found material? I go back to the book every couple years, looking for an answer, and always come away with a new sense of whatever book of my own I happen to be writing then.
Black Sunlight by Dambudzo Marechera (1980)
Brutal, hallucinogenic, caustic, and very funny, this short novel by Zimbabwean enfant terrible Dambudzo Marechera is one of the period's great revolutionary books. Directing his rage and disgust at every available target, including life itself, Marechera tracks his nihilism, he hunts it, he attacks it, always hyperaware of the spectacle he's making, and that, finally, he's making merely a spectacle. It's a brave and disturbing performance, and very moving. Marechera died of AIDS at 35.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Mirrlees' only fantasy novel is, for my money, one of the half-dozen greatest the genre has produced. I love it unreservedly. Dense, even difficult, its tonal shifts and its oblique handling of symbolism—it's a fairy novel—make for an uneasy reading experience. You're often uncertain what emotional effect Mirrlees is after, except for when she's going for poignancy, a mark she invariably hits. I find that each rereading, as I get older, increases that poignancy without resolving any ambiguities. Odd. Mirrlees' long Modernist poem, Paris, published in 1919 by Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press, is excellent, too.
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.