Publishing for the Moral Imagination

Publishing for the Moral Imagination
Christopher Tompkins

The following is an edited version of a lecture given at 2022 Inklings Festival held by the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas.

After being asked to talk on my current publishing projects through Darkly Bright Press, my immediate concern was the tone I should take. I am a wretched businessman and I have a greater fear of sounding like telemarketer than losing out on potential sales. I do not want this to feel like a 30 minute infomercial. However, in an attempt to mollify that tiny sliver of me which thinks of myself as a successful businessman, I will say:

Of course, buy my books. Buy them all. Read them. Adore them. Cradle them to your bosom at night. As we constantly hear in this world, buying things will make your life better.”

Having said all that, I am anxious to speak not only about the mission of Darkly Bright Press, now in its fifth year of publishing, but also about the three books released this weekend at the festival and their authors. So, what do Richard W. Rohlin, Joshua Alan Sturgill and Arthur Llewellyn Jones Machen have in common?

From the beginning of the press, the tagline has read: “Uncommon Literature and Liturgical Christianity.” Certainly that has attracted some and warned away others. But I am quite fine with making distinctions. There is distinct ground upon which I have desired Darkly Bright to firmly stand. Good books – the great books – should search out the obscured beauty of the created world, sometimes forgotten, sometimes willfully ignored, and manifest that beauty for the purpose of falling back in love with the Creator. This should be the end goal of any attempt to gain re-enchantment. To do this, we require a literature, not only expertly executed, but done so upon a firm foundation of first principles, girded by traditional values and an unmoving understanding of the hierarchical cosmos.

Of course, I am using unpopular, or possible verboten, language, but it is nonetheless so. Forgive me for uttering this name within these hallowed walls… but Amazon has attempted to destroy all that is beautiful, hierarchical and cosmic in Tolkien. Of course they have failed, but it is annoying and dull to witness such cultural vandalism on an industrial scale. Arthur Machen comments (and this can be found in the new book): “The discovery that Beauty is to be found in shapeless disorder is wholly modern.”

We have figures from the past who can show us the way back to gaining some of what we have lost. And if we look hard enough, or rather, if we listen deeply enough, so that we push beyond the static of our media-obsessed shallow one-storied world, we will hear voices today singing in harmony with those of the Anglo-American tradition: the Inklings, Eliot, Sayers, MacDonald, Machen…

and Russell Kirk.

Remembered today chiefly for writing The Conservative Mind, and to a lesser degree his work on T. S. Eliot, Kirk also wrote fiction, and to my ever-lasting delight, his chosen genre was the ghost story. Reading his essay A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale, we find the following:

Gerald Heard said to me once that the good ghost story must have for its kernel some clear premise about the character of human existence – some theological premise, if you will.” Kirk continues: “Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural – as written by George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters – can be an instrument for the recovery of the moral order.”

Naturally, these ideas should be extended to all manner of speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction and even mystery. I would further suggest that all excellent poetry operates in this manner, and perhaps, is the literary form most inherently suited to manifest it purely.

Kirk’s desire for a literature capable of recovering the moral order – tradition, religion, hierarchy – is deeply sympathetic to the concept of the sacramental imagination and harmonizes intellectually with the latter’s mystical expression. This approach is a stark opposite to the nihilistic decadence of our twenty-first century West. Therefore, we should read past writers and discover current authors whose prose and verse fulfills the vision of both the moral and sacramental imagination. In its limited way, I hope Darkly Bright Press can play a small part in this cause.

Now, I’d like to shift and say a few words about the three newest books and their writers. Hopefully, what I’ve prepared here will ping back nicely to my previous claims.

I first met Richard Rohlin last year at the Inklings Festival, and it was then that the idea of collaborating on a project hazily appeared on the horizon. I was delighted months later when Richard sent me a septet of original poems for possible online publication. Upon his submission, I instantly recognized that electronic posting, a truly ephemeral medium whether we choose to believe it or not, was not suitable. Returning to previous conversations between us, I decided that it merited a chapbook, a medium which I enjoy, but is sorely underused.

Making the suggestion, I commented to Richard that a chapbook consisting of only these seven poems would be quite a thin pamphlet. “Do you have anything you think may be suitable to add?”

Then followed an avalanche. Suddenly, I was faced with the opposite situation. What to choose? In the end, it seemed reasonable to both of us to build a brief, but well-developed introduction to The World Under Starlight. Essentially, this is the process that led to Akboritha.

Akboritha-soft-cover-webAdditionally, on the practical level, it would allow us to test the appetite for such a singular production. We both enjoy the particularity of limited editions. Not surprisingly, we received some pushback. But as Richard commented privately to me, and I believe elsewhere, we live in a world of disposable products, so there is something to be said for the beautiful and finite.

So, on August 1st, we published a limited run of 50 copies – 20 signed and numbered hardcovers with 30 numbered softcovers. The hardcover sold out in less than two hours; the remaining stock vanished within the week. We were both humbled and quite pleased with the result. So, I am glad to say that we have more books in the planning stages. This printing of Akboritha is the second impression, and I’ll keep printing it as long as it keeps selling.

As for the book itself, Richard, naturally enough, has proven up to task of describing his aims with the story and world-building. I’d like to discuss what attracted me to want to publish the book.

The concept of backstory is most often concentrated on how a tale or a series of tales works in the author’s mind, and therefore, isn’t often designed to be read by said author’s public. There are exceptions, of course, and the mechanics of Middle-earth has long been available to industrious readers. And, with regard to Tolkien, I have always been more interested in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings than the narrative proper. Richard, in quite a bold move, has put narrative, as it is popularly understood, to the side and pushed his backstory to the fore.

In doing this, he asks the reader to contemplate how lore, not characterization, action or dialogue, can be the driving engine of storytelling. Here, lore serves a greater purpose than a weapon of sticking points to skewer offenders of canonicity (which admittedly, is quite an amusing pastime). Rather, it is the foundation of the creative act, the fount from which all tribes and nations were formed, through song, epic heroes and religion. Crafting history, geography and ritual, Richard builds a mosaic for a vanished people with echoes of a distinct moral order.

Often, I’ve heard Richard comment that he has written novels in the expected mode but these “lost books” will never be seen because they are so bad. Maybe. However, great writers should be harsh concerning their work. And I suspect this is the case. Regardless, I don’t want to read those books because I am anxious to see how the story plays out in this bold direction. There will be more heroic poetry, with names of men and women we must imagine from the verse. There will battles told in song for us to hear. There will be worship handed down through liturgies and psalters.

Writing a strong and beautiful narrative is wonderful and should always be cherished. Building a civilization, creating lore is next to godliness… sub-creation at its finest.

Many of you know Joshua Sturgill, seemingly a fixture at Eighth Day Books. Joshua and I have known one another for a long time. In fact, my wife and I were chrismated into the Orthodox Church alongside his parents nearly twenty years ago. I’m thankful that we’ve been friends during much of that time.

He has been a source of moral support for me and for Darkly Bright Press since its conception and is the first writer to trust this neophyte with his work. Well, at least he was the first to do so willingly. Poor Arthur Machen did have a choice in the matter. After hearing Joshua read at a poetry event in 2014, I filed the information away to be used at a more convenient time. Four years later, we published As Far As I Can Tell, his first and my third book. In 2019, we released Precession, a limited chapbook. During this time, I began posting his work weekly on the website and he will near 250 posts by the end of the year. This includes not only poetry but fairy tales and essays. By far, he is the the most prolific contributor and my most frequent collaborator. The quality matches the quantity, I am happy to say.

NMMP CoverThat brings us to his second full length collection, Now A Major Motion Picture, his best work to date. It has been a wild and fun ride. Quickly grab a copy of this book. This small printing has a handful of wonderful and artfully placed errata which will certainly increase its value in the years to come. I take responsibility, of course.

I gather that the technical aspects of Joshua’s poetry are quite excellent. I hope this isn’t too shocking, but I wouldn’t know. Let us leave those details to the more-informed minds of poets that care for that sort of thing. It is the imagery that Joshua creates through his carefully chosen phraseology which interests me. More than a poet, I tend to imagine Joshua as a cartographer. And as a map-builder, he charts the thin places between reality and illusion, between the cosmic and the intimate. Using Machenalian language, I suggest that he pierces the veil and lets through gleaming pinpricks of starlight, thereby enlightening his readers and encouraging them through his verse, to see the world around us as a paradise in disguise waiting to break out at any time.

Widely read and experienced, Joshua draws from a deep well of perennial wisdom. Conversant in worldly philosophy and world religion, Joshua’s poetry, while employing imagery from a multitude of cultures, nonetheless remains devoted… or we could say… betrothed to that scandalous particular. That is… the Incarnation of God, Who wants more than anything to be with us, for us to see His face in the face of the other. For Joshua, His Face is found everywhere… in the dance between the Sun and the Moon, and even amongst the radishes upon his kitchen table.

Through his poetry, Joshua describes a world of sacrament. It calls us to to recognize the order of the cosmos, its remarkable balance and our place within its ever awe-inspiring and ever-ascending pattern.

Of course, it’s no secret that I am an admirer of Welsh writer Arthur Machen. I could speak about him for hours, but I won’t. That was last year. But because I am a bit of a hack, I will lift a short excerpt from my previous lecture:

For Machen, great works of literature are imbued with hieroglyphs, with iconic imagery that speaks to readers in a secret language. When we discover the Holy Grail while reading the legends, we instantly intuit what that symbol means without it being explained to us. We can describe this approach as a defense of universal stories… of the mythopoeic vision.

Machen’s tales of noetic horror and Christian fantasy are wonderful, so too are his insightful essays. However, it is his theory of literature, of hieroglyphics, that mark Machen as a visionary. In describing what what constitutes fine literature, he wrote:

…for me the answer comes with the one word, Ecstasy. If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature, if it be absent, then, in spite of all the cleverness, all the talents, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then, I think, we have a product (possibly a very interesting one), which is not fine literature. Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ecstasy as the best symbol of my meaning.”

After discovering comments such this, and rereading his story The Great Return, I had found my lamppost as a publisher. I hope that those ideas are apparent in the books I choose to publish including the work of Richard Rohlin and Joshua Sturgill.

M&M FrontFor this new collection, Mist and Mystery, I sought to uncover more unknown or little read work by the Apostle of Wonder, as one biographer anointed him. The book includes a modern fairy tale and a Grail story unique to the Machen canon since it employs legendary characters and is not set in his contemporary Britain. Also included is a short satire in which Scrooge is confronted by the Spirit of Psycho-Analysis. As far as I have been able to determine, this story has not seen print since its magazine appearance in 1923.

The bulk of the book, however, highlights Machen as a critic and reviewer of a highly nuanced caliber. In this capacity, he enters into a scuffle between Chesterton and Shaw, prods occultists into exposing themselves and reviews books by facinating writers including Evelyn Underhill and the Roman Catholic author Fr. R. H. Benson. I hope it is an enlightening and entertaining volume that will continue my mission of showcasing an under-appreciated writer whose words are sorely needed to be read today.

Drawing from his large body of newspaper articles – and he wrote over seven hundred – I publish rare Machen material weekly.

Telegonos-coverIn addition to these three new books, I hope you consider perusing the older publications. In addition to more Machen material, there is some great poetry from Father Anthony Gilbert and Phillip Tippin. Also, I’d like to mention Telegonos, a unique drama from Jonathan Golding.

So, there you have it. I hope I’ve given some insight into my motivations as a publisher. Certainly, I am under no delusions that my small efforts will be the cure to our ills. With or without Darkly Bright Press, there will be good literature if we wish look for it. Beauty will persist.

In closing, I’ll mention that I have a second tagline that I usually only share with my writers when we begin a project. But, I’ll share it with you now, in the hope that it may cover the poverty of my meager efforts: If it is pleasing to God, it will be.

All original essays, original artwork, photos, scans & supplementary material: copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins

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