Friday, October 26, 2012

Stephen Gilbert's The Burnaby Experiments (1952)

Forrest Reid (1875-1947) is a writer who I've long found fascinating.  In a lot of ways, he's similar to John Trevena, the subject of my previous blog post.  Both wrote in relative isolation from the London literary scene -- Reid in Belfast, Trevena in Dartmoor -- and neither really belonged to any recognizable contemporary literary movement.  Both had their admirers, and both enjoyed widespread critical success, but neither ever made it big commercially, and both fell into total obscurity after their deaths.  Reid won the James Tait Black prize and counted among his friends and admirers such notables as Walter de la Mare and E.M. Forster.  We might have added Henry James to this list, but after his horror at finding Reid's The Garden God dedicated to him, he never spoke to Reid again; who knows if he still read his books.

It's already been written about often enough elsewhere not to need repeating here, but whether merely platonic or whether something more, Reid was fascinated by boys and boyhood, and nearly all his works deal with that topic.  Like J. M. Barrie, Reid had some of his most important friendships with young people, and in Reid's case, perhaps the most significant was Stephen Gilbert.  Reid and Gilbert met in 1931, when Reid would have been about 56 and Gilbert about 19; Reid acted as Gilbert's mentor and ended up idealizing their relationship in Brian Westby (1934), which Gilbert apparently wasn't entirely comfortable with.  In The Burnaby Experiments (1952), Gilbert turns the tables, telling the story of their relationship from his point of view, and casting Reid as the fussy, parasitic, and ultimately sinister Mr. Burnaby.  

I won't talk about the book's plot so as not to spoil any surprises -- suffice it to say that the book is impossible to put down.  What I found interesting, though, as we put this 60th anniversary edition together, is how quickly and how utterly the book has become obscure.  Valancourt Books is probably best known for our editions of rare old Gothic novels. The Forest of Valancourt (1813), for example, is 200 years old, and is known to survive in only one copy worldwide, at the Bodleian Library.  And yet, it's not all that hard to get: it's as simple as emailing your credit card information to the Bodleian and paying them $200 or so to photocopy and mail it to you.  

Try getting a copy of The Burnaby Experiments.  We've seen one copy come up for sale in the past five years; it sold the same day it was listed.  It was never published in America, and Worldcat finds only 13 libraries in all of the U.S. that hold copies -- oh, and try getting one of them to lend it to you (they won't copy it for you, of course, since it's in copyright).  Even worse, try finding out anything about the book.  Because things published in 1952 are still in copyright, you won't find any reviews in any electronic databases or anywhere else, and there is scant information online.  (And the few books that might have catalogued those original book reviews have probably been long discarded from your library as presumed useless.)

Stephen Gilbert died in 2010; under current copyright law, The Burnaby Experiments will be under copyright until the end of 2080.  In the rush to get rid of books and add more computers and online resources, one wonders how many of these rare novels of the 1940s-1960s -- not old enough to have been scanned into Google Books nor new enough to proliferate in mass market paperback copies -- will vanish by 2080.  Perhaps unexpectedly, it won't be the 18th or 19th centuries that in future may end up as Dark Ages of British popular fiction, but the mid-twentieth.  The Burnaby Experiments is the latest of a few copyright 20th century novels we've uncovered and brought back, and we hope to rediscover others.  Let us know what you think of Burnaby -- if it's successful, we'd like to look into reprinting Gilbert's Ratman's Notebooks (1968), a wonderful, weird horror novel twice filmed as Willard (1971; 2003).


  1. I enjoyed the book a lot, and have ordered the author's 'Monkeyface'.

    I've read a lot of Reid's books, incuding 'Brian Westby'.
    His best book, however, is 'Peter Waring'.

    1. I'll add that I like Valancourt's books, I've already got two of Priestley's books including 'Benighted' and a collection of short stories.
      It would be nice if his books 'Wonder Hero' and 'They walk in the City' get reprinted again one day. One can only hope.