David Greenslade offers us a glimpse into the work of Swansea-based Dave Mitchell and his international publishing project, Incunabula Media.
It’s always reassuring to be reminded that someone in Wales has their fingers on the pulse of the benevolently weird. At the moment, that honour must surely go to Incunabula Media based in Swansea. But not only Swansea. As their website states Incunabula Media is a collaboration between Dave Mitchell, Swansea and Kim Dallesandro based in Hollywood, California. Theirs is a phoenix born from the ashes of a previous, also benevolently weird, publishing project – Oneiros Books.
Oneiros Books specialised in the recovery of ghost stories and other tales of haunting unease – among them, reprints of forgotten gems by H P Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Machen and the utterly bizarre, Victorian matron, Lucy Lane Clifford. The new project, Incunabula Media focuses more on the contemporary unheimlich, the uncanny, the uneasy, the surreal in the everyday.
Swansea is a surreal city says Dave Mitchell. Quite apart from its role in hosting historic international surrealist exhibitions of note from Contariwise (Glynn Vivian, 1985) to Supreme Collaborators (Volcano, 2022) Swansea is also the birthplace of J H Matthews (born 1930, died New York, 1987) one of the world’s leading commentators on French and British surrealist writing of the twentieth century. It is significant that Matthews has no Wikipedia page – that puzzling void confirming the ghostly mist that Mitchell and Dallesandro like so much about Swansea’s ragged present and its bombed and bulldozed past. Take a walk around Swansea with Mitchell as your guide and he’ll point out the many magical eccentricities that make the City of Jacks such a kaleidoscope of architecture, the homeless and the tragic, the ethnic and local and how the city’s artists festoon shop windows with the freakish and the whimsical.
Dave Mitchell learned the design, publishing and marketing trade when working for such counterculture publishers as Creation Books and Savoy Books. Much more important, though, is selecting the right authors for a new, niche imprint. Hence the choice of transatlantic DC Comics writer Grant Morrison and David Conway of the Irish dream pop, rock band My Bloody Valentine.
Incunabula though intends to take a different direction. It was Morrison who introduced Mitchell to the astonishing Victorian writer Lucy Lane Clifford. Her short, unnerving fables are clear precursors of early feminist surrealism. Once published by Oneiros, Lucy Clifford has, however, been carried over to the Incunabula list.
The choice of Incunabula as an imprint title is deliberate. It pays tribute to the infancy of printed books and the care that otherwise neglected work deserves. Its editors are interested in the positively monstrous, an interest that is now expanding into animation.
Dave Mitchell explains, “It became a great British tradition to settle round the telly with the family and watch one of the BBC adaptations of ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’. I think one of our roles is to act as a guide through the circles of Hell, which is what the world more and more resembles every day.”
Through its programme of publishing and performance, Incunabula Media jump-cuts Swansea with Hollywood, Swansea with London At the Troubadour folk/poetry venue, Earl’s Court in 2021 Kim Dallesandro, dressed in full mariachi gear, fused her experiences of Mexico, Germany and Warhol’s New York with Mitchell’s ability to connect Swansea with contemporary Gothic Punk. See the Dallesandro (online) Punk Globe interview with Ginger Coyote.
As for Mitchell himself, while he’s been around, his heart has never really wandered far from home. He has a psychic’s eye for Swansea’s ghost geography and takes great delight in recalling the phantoms of former music venues through the layers of his native city’s streets. No matter how boarded up, repurposed or clumsily modernised he can give a tour of the city that is literate, affectionate and always insightful.
His own writing is unashamedly surreal without the gimmicks of unpredictability. His novel 100 Chambers, is just that – a sequence of visits to 100 rooms. Each room opens in the form of a journey through a labyrinth – not a maze and not a corridor – every chamber has its own mesmeric theatre. While his creative partner Kim Dallesandro’s writing revisits the atmosphere of Raymond Carver, Mitchell’s writing is a sort of Vernon Watkins meets Italo Calvino – lyrical, grounded and semi-clairvoyant.
Swansea based Incunabula Media is a new project. Much of the Oneiros international list will still be available and Incunabula will keep its Gothic surreal base of reprints alongside the new. Incunabula will also, however try and connect what California and Swansea can find in common – the gritty, the wild and the avant-garde. Incunabula, the way Mitchell and Dallesandro interpret this complex word, also means ‘to cradle, to swaddle, to wrap, to enfold’ – in other words ‘to nurture’. Projects in the pipeline include writers and filmmakers from Wales, England and the United States; there’s a lot still to come.
David Greenslade writes in Welsh and English and shares his time between Wales and Romania.