The best books on decadence & the supernatural

Who am I?

A cult author who has survived by the skin of her wits. Nina has spent her adult years in London though many believe she is from New York, which sounds like a lot of travelling for someone who has spent the majority of her life in the dream land of writing. What does being a cult author entail? It is to be a literary Will o’ the Wisp, possessing a gem like glimmering in a mist of obscurity, loved by the rarified few. After writing many critically acclaimed books on various nefarious rock n’ rollers, her ardor dimmed with the passing years as those she had loved were no more and so she returned to her first love, which is the strange and supernatural.

I wrote...

Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood

By Nina Antonia,

Book cover of Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood

What is my book about?

Johnny Thunders – In Cold Blood has existed below the mainstream radar but Mr. Thunders has a devoted fan base that has grown since his death in 1991. In life, he was the stripped-down essence of rock n’ roll and an unquantifiable influence on the musicians who grew up in his shadow from Guns n’ Roses to Green Day. It is rewarding to hear from people a great deal younger than myself for whom Johnny Thunders is an emblem of a freer albeit wilder time. He connects with the disenfranchised and disheartened and reminds them of how liberating a good guitar riff can be.

The commissioning editor of Virgin Books told me there was no future in writing about Punk whilst the editor of the NME declared that neither he nor his staff could find anything redeeming in the subject matter. Happily, it has survived its detractors and has remained in print for the best of 30 something years.

The books I picked & why

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The Hill of Dreams

By Arthur Machen,

Book cover of The Hill of Dreams

Why this book?

The Hill of Dreams will appeal to anyone who has struggled to gain creative acceptance. Welsh-born Machen who was admired by Lovecraft spins a wondrous if tragic tale of a faun-like country boy, Lucian who moves to London, hoping to write a novel based on a pagan vision but loses his way in the course of setting magic to paper.

Machen effortlessly captures the poetic hopelessness expressed by Chatterton, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson, literary waifs all. An exquisite elegy for romantic outsiders of all centuries, it evokes the fading lilt of Pan’s Pipes at dusk.  Although most people consider The Picture of Dorian Gray to be the ultimate expression of Decadent literature, The Hill of Dreams with its morbid beauty and taint of autumnal decay is the equal of Oscar Wilde’s esoteric masterpiece. Machen’s yearning for the ineffable so beautifully expressed in his book was the inspiration for my debut novel The Greenwood Faun.

Dreamers of Decadence

By Philippe Jullian, Robert Baldick (translator),

Book cover of Dreamers of Decadence

Why this book?

This bejeweled guide to Fin de Siècle art and aesthetics is like a moonlit walk in one of King Ludwig II fairytale castles, populated by androgynous chimeras, drowned princes, and erotic vampires carrying John the Baptist’s head on a platter designed by Moreau. As fabulous and tragic as the author, whose drag mode was that of a convincing English Spinster, Philipe Jullian was born to write this book which has influenced my work since I bought it aged 18, with not a clue about life. For over 40 years I have endeavored to keep a torch burning for the extraordinary decorative aesthetics of the author. Few books are as complete as Dreamers of Decadence for not only does Jullian explore the artists of that curious oeuvre, he also introduces the best of the literature as well as the movement’s strange obsessions and themes, each chapter revealing new facets of the perfume scented absinthe drenched phantasmagoria. 

Our Lady of the Flowers

By Jean Genet,

Book cover of Our Lady of the Flowers

Why this book?

One of the first books I bought that could be considered subversive literature, Our Lady still remains as vital as ever as we are plunged into the gay underworld of Paris with its criminal code, juvenile delinquents and male prostitutes dreamed up by the author whilst doing time for burglary, ‘I can muse in comfort on the lovely dead of yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ Genet’s isolation goes beyond that of even the most disciplined author just as his life experience gives the book its fantastic reality that is infused with the odors of poison flowers and spent lust. 

Our Lady presents us with a kaleidoscope of gaudy images that are the shattered pieces of the author’s desires. Genet ultimately was rescued from the authorities by Cocteau and a host of other literary luminaries, who pledged for his talent. Our Lady gave me an introduction to the idea of worlds within worlds, lives being played out beneath the radar of conventional society, a motif that reoccurs in all my work. I loathe successful artists with cars and houses who claim to be outsiders, for they have bought into the very society that Genet and his characters had no choice but to refute.

A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures

By Katharine M. Briggs,

Book cover of A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures

Why this book?

There is a world of difference between the fairies of folk-lore and the ‘airy-fairy’s’ to use one of Katherine Brigg’s descriptions that infest popular media. Disney’s depiction of Peter Pan & Tinkerbelle as ordinary kids who happen to have wings bears no relation to the fairies of folklore. The moment a fairy character is absorbed into capitalist entertainment, their magic is lost. The unsurpassable fairy lore of Katherine Briggs 1898-1980, takes up an entire shelf on my bookcase and includes The Anatomy of Puck, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, The Vanishing People, and A Dictionary of Fairies. The one-time president of the English Folklore Society, her books are so authoritative and imaginative, they bring to life the incredible inhabitants of the otherworldly realm. All the best books on the subject were written before 1970, the later ones tending to be cribbed from Briggs and that other great folklorist, W.B Yeats whose writing on the Irish Fae, the Sidh (pronounced Shee) is superlative.

Come Hither, Vol. 1: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages

By Walter De La Mare (editor),

Book cover of Come Hither, Vol. 1: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages

Why this book?

Rather than saying that he edited Come Hither, the poet, and author, Walter De La Mare (1873-1956) describes himself as having ‘made’ the anthology. Given the enticing notes to the poems and the selection of verses more than validates De La Mare’s assertion. Indeed the anthology of poetry is like a house designed to the finest detail by Mr. De La Mare, who might be considered the Poe of Poetry, as his verses tended towards the odd, ghostly and ineffable.

He was one of the last of the romantic school and Come Hither reflects his taste, Walter De La Mare is long out of fashion like many of the verses on offer, but that is what makes it all the sweeter, from the speech of The Wandering Spectre by unknown to my very favorite poem Tom O’ Bedlam (another marvel by ‘anon’) to more recognized names, such as William Blake with the heartbreaking Chimney Sweeper as well as contributions from Edith Sitwell and Eleanor Farjeon. ‘Come Hither’ has a faded, bye-gone quality yet each of the poems achieves perfection. I’ve always written poetry, but unlike my books, publishers all say the same thing ‘I like your work but poetry doesn’t sell.’ We live in an era that heralds individuality but does everything it can to stifle it.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the supernatural, LGBTQ topics and characters, and magic-supernatural?

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