As a child growing up in the 1970s, I possessed a passion for morbid nineteenth century popular literature. I had inherited this trait from my mother, a Catholic turned Spiritualist with a taste for gothic film and fiction. I was thus always dimly aware of the name ‘Jack Vincent’ through the cheap paperback anthologies of out-of-copyright horror stories which I sought out and demolished with a similar enthusiasm to House of Hammer Magazine and Universal monster movies.
Vincent was always a ghost back then though, more likely to be mentioned in passing than actually quoted in New English Library books on the Gothic, and completely absent from my Pelican History of Victorian Literature. There was, however, one short story by Vincent that re-occurred in several collections, either in the company of Regency tales of terror or, occasionally, alongside better known literary authors such as Dickens, Poe, and Le Fanu. This story was ‘The Shivering of the Timbers,’ a surprisingly lively, imaginative and violent ghost story that seemed to me to anticipate popular but controversial twentieth century horror fiction, such as EC comics and the so-called ‘video nasties’ that were then in the process of being banned in Britain.
‘The Shivering of the Timbers’ really put the hook in me, and I searched in vain for anything else by Vincent. It was clear to me that this text was conceptually and structurally out of place with its contemporaries, while sophisticated enough to suggest that the author surely must have written more than this one story. What I realise now is that the old pulp anthologies tended to feed off one another, so if Herbert van Thal included it in a Pan Book of Horror Stories then it would be recycled in other miscellanies. The story appears, for example, in the Daggers of the Mind collection edited by August Derleth, Peter Haining’s Regency Tales of Horror and Romance, Sarah Ravencroft’s Lost Tales of Terror, and the Everyman Book of English Ghost Stories. It even turns up in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories My Mother Told Me Not to Read. I carried this story with me to university, where I read, unsurprisingly, nineteenth century literature. I subsequently even managed to get a paper out of it for the Legacies of Walpole conference at Strawberry Hill, but by then I had given up ever finding another tale by Jack Vincent. It is notable that even Google Books and Project Gutenberg remain bereft to this day.
This insubstantial shade acquired a more definite shape in the course of my doctoral research into the life and works of that other great lost Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth. I had discovered Ainsworth as a kid in much the same way as Vincent, through a magical find in an antiquarian bookshop, in this case an illustrated edition of Rookwood. While researching Ainsworth, I began to notice references to Vincent, especially in contemporary journalism around the period of the so-called ‘Newgate Controversy.’ This was a moral panic at the end of the 1830s concerning the supposedly pernicious effects of ‘criminal romances’ on young, working class male readers which dragged in Ainsworth (ruining his serious literary reputation), Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and even Dickens. Probably because of his Chartist affiliations, Vincent’s novels were considered particularly dangerous, and so those that went on to dictate nineteenth century literary history, men like John Forster, R.H. Horne, and the formidable Charles Wentworth Dilke appeared to have been especially diligent in eradicating all trace of Vincent from Victorian culture.
I came across him again when I read Ainsworth’s unpublished letters, which were held in the Local Studies Unit of Manchester Central Library as part of the James Crossley Papers. Crossley, a Manchester solicitor, amateur historian and literary dilettante, was Ainsworth’s closest friend, and he had retained a vast amount of private correspondence, including not just letters from Ainsworth that mention Vincent, but letters to and from Vincent himself. It is clear that he and Ainsworth were intimately acquainted, and that Ainsworth, unlike Dickens, had been prepared to retain the friendship, perhaps because he felt himself similarly ill-used by former friends in literary London. From these letters I was able to piece together some sort of publication history for Vincent, now forced to write under a series of aliases and pseudonyms because of his scandalised reputation. He therefore appears in my biography of Ainsworth, The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist, but still as something of a footnote.
I relocated to Japan a couple of years after my doctorate was conferred in 2000, spending three years as an associate-professor of English and American literature at the University of Fukui. I returned to the UK ten years ago, taking a post in literature and creative writing at my old alma mater, the University of East Anglia. It was during this period that I commenced a new research project with a view to a book on the jobbing writers of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, the hack journalists and penny-a-liners who ground away at the wheel of fortune for years, earning just enough to survive, but never achieving the recognition of their literary contemporaries. But the business of life intervened, as it so often does, and the book remained unfinished for several years, during which time I married and had a child, and the needs of my new family led to a decision to leave academia in favour of publishing.
I nonetheless continued to tinker with my book, publishing extracts in journals and speaking at academic conferences, and I eventually secured an independent research grant which bought me the time I needed to once more focus on this project. It was during this period, just over three years ago, that I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of the eccentric and remarkable collector Horace Frome, a long retired rag-and-bone man who would nowadays be referred to as a ‘hoarder.’ Mr. Frome’s small terraced house was packed from floor to ceiling in every room with stacks of late-Georgian and Victorian periodicals, as well as an impressive amount of newspapers and books from those periods, old and worn and yellow, much like Mr. Frome. This collection was begun from clearance auctions during the Blitz, and continued to expand throughout Mr. Frome’s professional life and into his retirement. His dream had been to write a comprehensive history of Industrial Britain, and he believed these papers to be essential primary source material. He continued to save daily editions of several contemporary tabloids and broadsheets, and was eventually killed when he was trapped under a collapsed pile of Daily Mails, dying of a combination of dehydration and suffocation. Not, as Jack Vincent would say, a good way to go.
I first met Mr. Frome at an auction of Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac at which we had both good-naturedly bid against each other for a tea chest full of New Monthly Magazines. Mr. Frome won the auction, but he seemed to want the ear and understanding of a fellow antiquarian, and he therefore invited me to view his treasured archives at home. The collection was not what I expected. The house was in a terrible state. The papers were unsorted, and in varying states of preservation, from surprisingly well-kept to destroyed by damp, mould and vermin. Mr. Frome was obviously not in the best of health, and I urged him to let me assist in cataloguing this maze-like private library. As my field of research was different to his own he saw no harm in sharing this invaluable resource (as he still believed he would one day finish his great project), as long as I was willing to voluntarily aid him in its organisation. He also tapped me for a significant amount of my research grant for a fee. We laboured together for the last six months of his life, until his hoard finally killed him. I pleaded with the local authority to let me continue to work through the papers, but this wonderful, if rat infested private archive was deemed a fire and a health hazard, and carted away to the local incinerator.
Mr. Frome had no known family and died intestate, so I saved what I could around the council workmen, bribing them to look the other way while I filled my car with random books and periodicals as they filled their skips. In the final, frantic stages of this rescue, I came upon a battered suitcase underneath a mummified cat that contained a jigsaw of musty shoeboxes. Each of these, on inspection, held several hundred delicate pages of closely handwritten manuscript. Intrigued, I ditched my spare wheel, jammed the suitcase into the boot and made good my escape.
I like to imagine that I was destined to find this suitcase. Its contents, I soon discovered, were the letters, short stories, novels and, most astonishingly of all, the extended memoirs of Jack Vincent. Given their position in the paper strata, my guess is that they were purchased early on by Mr. Frome, probably during the war. It took several weeks to arrange the boxes into some kind of order, as the memoirs, although in several volumes, were not dated or numbered, and I had to work out their chronological position based upon content and context. It soon became clear from contemporary cultural references that Vincent began writing his memoirs in parallel with his fiction in the middle part of the century, before continuing the process retrospectively in later life. Several of the manuscripts are dedicated ‘To My Wife and Son,’ and it is my belief that Vincent, who married a woman much younger than himself and became a father in middle age, wanted to explain himself as much as possible to his family (particularly the boy) in the event of his death quite early on in his child’s life. The language is confessional, but also much less formal and restrained than would be expected in print during that period. Vincent had a serial writer’s gift for narrative structure, however, and the memoirs do read very much like his novels, only in a style that sometimes anticipates the naturalism of the early-Modernists as much as it is more conventionally Victorian.
Once reasonably satisfied that I had located the first volume, I set about transcribing and editing; a process that has taken much of the last three years to complete around my other professional and family commitments. Because it deals in detail with Vincent’s own childhood, I am confident that Shark Alley is the first memoir, while I am convinced of the veracity of these documents. It is my intention to continue to bring Vincent’s life and stories to the attention of the twenty-first century reading public, and in common with my other research I am sharing this work online, releasing it as a serial in the true spirit of the original penny-a-liners.