Danny's Last Duchess by Dennis Hamley

I've just read John's 'Rage of the Fleas' blog and feel almost inhibited from writing any blog at all this month!  The chasm between the brilliant and the workaday is going to be rather marked.

No matter. Here we go.

An aspect of this wonderful new world of Createspace and its lovely-looking paperbacks which seem to come from nowhere is the possibility of 'bookmaking', which Lynne hinted at a few days ago and which I hadn't quite appreciated until I got hooked on the whole Createspace process. It's a temptation which could be satisfied by producing ebooks but which somehow isn't.

Like most writers, I suppose, I have a scrapbox full of stories which haven't been published. Some were written for projects which publishers accepted and then axed half-way through even though they'd already paid me (who says publishers can't be generous benefactors?) Some were rejected outright - often deservedly. Some of these were quite beyond any attempt to rescue them, others were salvageable. Some had never been tried with anybody. All of them, except those beyond any recall, deserved their chance.  There were also stories I liked which were buried in long defunct anthologies and might be worth a second airing.

This is the field of 'bookmaking'. I've done two already, one with four 'slightly weird'  stories (Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick) and the other bringing together twelve ghost stories with extra notes on provenance (Out of the Deep). Time for a third?

Product Details

Well, why not? The first Bright Sea Dark Graves: The Guns of St Therese is out (a nice 5-star review on Amazon com,  by someone I've never heard of but thank him nonetheless, but nothing on co.uk). The second, The Nightmares of Invasion, is receiving its final final draft. We're leaving for our usual two months in New Zealand in three weeks so it won't be out for Christmas, so why not have two ready for February when we come back?

So I'm putting together another compilation. It will open with the story which first saw light of day in A Flash in the Pen.  I'm pleased with it and thought it might deserve a separate outing. It gives the book its title, In The Bleak Midwinter. Next is a story, Staying at Home, which hasn't been published before and, in an earlier form was not taken for the anthology for which I wrote it. The longest story Boney Will Get You, (actually billed as 'a very tiny novel') was intended as part of a big historical family saga I was writing with the poet Mick Gowar, for an educational series. I was actually one of the editors as well, so I only have myself to blame for its not being published. But I've always liked it and so here is a chance for it AT LAST to find a home. Then there's a longish Christmas story, Lost Leader, published so long ago that the manuscript was typed with a secondhand electric typewriter I found in the Articles for Sale column in the local  paper. So I'll have to retype it from my only copy of the book (actually An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, published in 1986).

That leaves one more. And it's in another OUP short story collection, which I edited myself. It's called Danny's Last Duchess. What's this? A story about the aristocracy? A new version of a Robert Browning poem? The title of the book it's part of may give a clue. The Young Oxford Book of Train Stories.

Yes, it's a railway story. So for Duchess, think Sir William Stanier.  For Last and Danny, think gricing. There, I bet some of you don't know what a gricer is. Suffice it to say that this is a coming of age and rite of passage story and I was very pleased with it then and still am today.
You've waited a long time for me to get to the segue from the introduction to the real point of this blog, but I've reached it at last.

Editing this collection, the first I did for OUP, was a delightful and satisfying experience. I selected sixteen stories from some well-known writers, some new writers and just one, previously published, from one of the greats. I also exercised droit d'editeur to slip in one of mine. Yes, everything was great. Until it came to the cover, which was presented to me as a take-it-or-leave-it fait accompli.

God help us indeed.

Surely this must be the worst cover ever inflicted on an innocent book. Atmospheric? The romance of the railways? God help us. A photograph of a freight train, probably American, headed by two identically boring diesel locomotives, without even catching the spirit of hoboes riding the rails, because to capture that you'd need at least a steam engine with bell and cowcatcher. And what I presume is a painting representing a weird multiple unit, whether diesel or electric I've no idea but unlike anything I've seen in any country anywhere. If the image was clearer, you'd see that the engineering on it is impossible, quite apart from not having any doors. In fact, it's almost Escher-like, which would be all right if the artist had actually meant it to be. Plainly s/he didn't. I even wondered whether another publisher had suborned the art department to make sure the book wouldn't sell. 

I was so disappointed. I'd described my ideal cover to them at some length and thought I was going to get it.  A big station at night, dark, with echoes under the high glassed arching roof (you wouldn't hear them but you'd know they'd be there) with signal lights shining red and green in the distance and a steam locomotive simmering at the platform. We would be standing just outside the cab looking in. And there, blinding against the darkness, would be the smokebox fire, shining a lurid orange.

Yes, romantic, expectant and just a little bit spooky. Real railway qualities, especially the spooky. There. At last we've got to what I really want to write about.

Next time.


(Thanks for the very kind words, Dennis...)

I can see you're having fun assembling a 3rd story compilation - and I can sort of sympathize with outrage over the old train book cover...though maybe the surreal blurry train at top saves it from being an all-out sabotage job...

Perhaps your ideal spooky-romantic train cover could be designed now for your new collection?
Jan Needle said…
Good on yer Dennis - keep em coming please. As to that cover - well, hallelujah! Done by someone, for someone, totally confident of their rectitude and brilliance. Another reason to celebrate independent publishing... PS. Well done John from me as well. Amazing blog.
Mari Biella said…
I'm looking forward to the new collection, Dennis. That cover, though - Good God. It makes you appreciate the benefits of going it alone. At least you won't have a cover like that foisted upon you...
glitter noir said…
So sorry about that cover, Dennis. Pee Wee Herman couldn't have done a worse job. But the collection sounds interesting and I'll look forward to getting a copy. After all, my To Read list now holds a mere hundred-odd titles. :)
Dennis Hamley said…
But Reb, you read Bright Sea Dark Graves and for that I'm really grateful Thanks so much for the Facebook entry.

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