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As some of you may know, my especial favourite strand of supernatural fiction is pagan or sylvan horror. Although fear of the woods has been with us since for ever, and has always appeared intermittently in ghost stories by classic genre authors like J S LeFanu and M R James, the full-blown "pagan horror" story only really appeared at the turn of the 19th century, with the writings of Arthur Machen and later Algernon Blackwood followed by a raft of fine writing by the likes of John Buchan, Saki and Walter de la Mare in the first half of the 20th century.

But going back to the beginnings of the subgenre, we encounter an author who is often overlooked - all but unheard-of today, in fact - but who made a big splash at the time just like Machen did with the succes de scandale that was The Great God Pan (1890) I'm talking about Edgar Jepson and his 1910 novel The Garden at No.19. I first heard about this novel when John Pelan's Nightshade Press published a new edition of it a few years ago, but was sadly unable to afford a copy at the time! Luckily, a few weeks ago, Fate (or possibly Pan himself?) threw me a bone. Kessinger Publishings Legacy Reprints have now done a facsimile reprint of the first edition of The Garden... - which is available in paperback for under £10 via the Fantasticfiction website! Naturally I leaped at the chance to order it.

But was it worth the excitement? Does the novel live up to the hype? Let's find out, as they say on Blue Peter.

The novel begins with the narrator Plowden, a respectable young legal clerk, making a killing on the stock market and using the money to buy a stately old house in a leafy London suburb. He wastes no time in settling in at no 20, even though gossipping neighbours apprise him that nobody stays long on that street due to the strange goings-on and general bad vibes emanating from the house next door , no19 (though like all gossips, they are tantalisingly vague about the exact nature of these goings-on.) Sure enough, mere weeks after Plowden's arrival a series of frightening and downright otherworldly events kicks in. But he refuses to leave, having become somewhat enamoured of the pretty young neighbour, Pamela, who shares the accursed no 19 with her curmudgeonly occultist uncle, Woodfell. Soon he is drawn into a strange new world that is wondrous and terrifying by turns - but how far can he go before the occult forces summoned by Woodfell turn on their summoner and become an active danger to life and sanity? And how will this affect his burgeoning love-affair?

John Pelan is full of praise for Jepson and his work in this interesting article here, making the bold assertion that "in this one novel at least, Jepson reaches the heights attained by Machen and Blackwood at their best". Well, I certainly enjoyed The Garden at no19 a lot. It is pacey and good fun, and crucially there are some scenes that evoke that unmistakeable sense of awe that only great mystical writing can achieve. A good author of pagan horror fiction absolutely has to have a sound grasp of "Panic horror" (the term "panic" of course comes from the word "Pan", if you hadn't worked that out already!)The author must be able to depict a character in the grip of such horror - s/he must show them becoming petrified with fear suddenly and without logical explanation, and s/he has to make such a scene convincing and not merely comical. Jepson knows how to do this - an apparently ordinary, respectable house becomes at times so frightening that grown men find it impossible to enter certain rooms, and the reader believes it. Full marks to Jepson for that! In the book's best scenes he has nothing to envy Arthur Machen or L.T.C. Rolt. And there are some outright creepy moments too (such as the chapter where Woodfell teaches an arrogant acolyte a harsh lesson straight from the Abyss...) The courting couple are very charming in their defiance of moral conventions - they are too moral to need them, according to Pamela's reasoning.

However, there are some drawbacks that prevent The Garden from being a real literary classic (though it is certainly a real genre classic.) Though the characters are likeable and human their portrayal can sometimes seem a bit thin, a little bit too predictable (despite the innovations mentioned in the previous paragraph.) They lack the inner conflicts and contradictions that characterise the best Victorian novels. I also felt that the hero and heroine were too eager to plumb the Abyss. Here Jepson is a victim of his own talent - the terror implicit in the summoning of gods and demons has been so well-evoked that the young couples' gung-ho and highly accepting attitude towards marvellous events seems a bit inappropriate. I would have liked to see a bit more trembling and dread, a bit more wanting to not believe (though there is one cynic character to balance things out a bit!) On the plus side, it is good to see a turn-of-the-century female heroine with balls, and I'm sure Wilkie Collins would have approved of her!

If a comparison were made between this novel and the stories of Arthur Machen (Jepson's nearest neighbour in terms of style and content), Jepson would come off worst. But it would be unfair to make such a comparison, because Jepson has written a novel and Machen only wrote poems and stories (except for The Hill of Dreams and The Secret Glory, of course). The supernatural novel is a notoriously difficult beast to write convincingly (I can number the good ones I've read on the fingers of one hand, and that's certainly not true of supernatural stories!) And it could be that, if Machen's stories were stretched to novel length, their characters would seem a bit thin too. Also, I think the novel's optimistic, have-a-go-hero vibe is at least partly deliberate. The details of his life suggest that Jepson was himself a believer in the occult, and it seems to me that part of his intention in writing this book was to make people aware of the positive side of the occult - he obviously disagreed with the way the "forces of the Abyss" were also treated as purely terrifying, and wanted to show the beauty and the joy of discovery that prompts people to dabble in the occult in the first place. I really appreciated that as I have read too many stories and novels that simply write off occult practioners as pathetic cranks or unwholesome, mentally unsound sorts solely motivated by greed or other twisted urges. Yes, demonology has been excessively demonised, and I'm glad to see Jepson fighting that!

All told, I would warmly recommend this novel to any lovers of supernatural fiction and thrillers, and especially to fans of Arthur Machen, Blackwood et al. Though sadly Jepson, normally a successful thriller writer, didn't have quite such a winning way with the wartime propaganda slogan ("Eat Less Bread!" was his 'finest' hour, believe it or not)... I also recommend this particular edition, as the facsimile reprint was part and parcel of my enjoyment - I loved the sensational chapter titles and dramatic (though somewhat murky) pictures (why don't they put pictures in horror novels any more?) And at $10 a throw, why stint yourself, that's what I say. And of course Pelan's hardback edition can still be found online if you fancy something a really classy-looking copy of this unjustly obscure genre classic.

If you want more Jepson facts check out the wikipedia page, and you can even read his most famous short story 'The Tea-Leaf' here at the Gaslight website.
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