Frisco Beat: Anniversary 101 for Stan McNail

As it turned out, the first installment of my short-lived review column for Lit, a literary supplement for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, hit print in May 1995 — timing that allowed me to wrap up the piece with a tribute to a pal of mine.

I wrote: “On April 4th the Bay Area lost one of its finest horror writers when Stan McNail died, age 77, in his Berkeley apartment. He came to San Francisco from his native Illinois in 1953, and is best known locally for founding The Galley Sail Review, a poetry quarterly, five years later. At one time he even acted as poetry editor for The Bay Guardian. I’m one of the admirers of his many horror poems, little masterpieces of macabre atmosphere. I think they are as good of their kind as are the ghost stories of M. R. James. You’ll find them collected in Footsteps in the Attic, Something Breathing, and At Tea in the Mortuary, whose title poem offers a tea party where the deceased describe their gruesome, violent deaths. “Then Rose spoke up with a strident voice,/ “I suffered too, for I died by choice,”/ And showed us the bruises from the noose/ On her twisted neck, where the flesh hung loose.” The narrator — vintage McNail — ends with:

With nothing to show and nothing to tell,
I squirmed with shame when a silence fell
And they turned to me. I felt so cheap
To confess I had simply died in my sleep.

Thus wrote I, back in the day. Everybody in our circle of horror devotees felt that Stan had shorted us, dying at 77, when his dad was still alive at the time and in his 90s.

Stan did have a heart attack in the night in his room — 1630 University Ave suite 42 (the windows just over main doorway) — and was found lying on the floor. Perhaps that detail adds frisson to the poem quoted above.

Today is the 101st anniversary of his birth.

If I’d been on my toes this time last year— and not dying, as it were, from congestive heart failure — I could have commemorated the 100th Big One. But even if I hadn’t been distracted, most likely I wouldn’t have thought of it. Few hard details about Stan’s life are available online or in the so-called “standard” reference sources, so it’s not easy to summon up his birthday. Until now.

I only thought to look for the date after Paul Dobish, one of my Arkham ephemera collecting pals (you’ll find him cited in my article on the subject in Firsts), brought an interesting collectors detail about the Arkham House first of Something Breathing to my attention.

I figured, yeah, cool, people need to know about that — might make a good excuse for a blog post on a birth or death day.

Now, when exactly was he born?

I dug the birthday out of the file on Stan kept by Steve Eng, which somehow ended up in my hands. Steve was the main guy, and certainly the most talented, to begin serious surveying of horror and fantastic poetry. In effect, he was the equivalent of Dirk Mosig, the major figure to kick off modern Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. More pedestrian pundits have carried on their work.

Stanley Duane McNail was born March 14, 1918 in Centralia, Illinois — the spelling of the name had been changed from the traditional McNeil. He moved to San Francisco by the early 1950s (I was sure of 1953 when I did my obit, but you can fudge the info if you want — in 1953 he would have been 35 years old).

Stan told Steve Eng, “In the late fifties I participated in Poetry Workshops at the University of California Extension Center, San Francisco, under Lawrence Hart, who was the mentor of the ‘Activist’ movement in poetry. . . ‘active’ imagery and the active line in poetry.”

I knew that Stan had worked for Greyhound for a long time — in management, I’m pretty sure, not driving a bus. His obit in the San Francisco Chronicle states he held down that post “for 15 years, retiring in 1983.” So, if correct, 1968-1983 — for many of those years and afterward he kept a room in 525 Hyde Street off Geary. He relocated to Berkeley in 1986.

While the Arkham edition of Something Breathing — usually tagged between $150 and $300 on the o.p. market — is his obvious major claim to fame, and most likely the toehold that keeps Stan on that sheer cliff-face of immortality, I wouldn’t count out his poetry journal The Galley Sail Review just yet. He began the little magazine in 1958 and continued until 1971 — then revived it, so that it appeared sporadically for 37 years. Early poems by Bukowski, some of The Beats, and hundreds more.

One anecdote Stan told me about the poetry scene in North Beach in that hothouse era of the late fifties/early sixties as the Beats were coming to dominate the scene (pushing the Activists and others firmly to the side) was an ongoing feud of some sort he was having with the poet Jack Spicer. Both Spicer and Stan were gay men. Spotting Spicer in a bar frequented by poets, Stan walked over and planted a kiss firmly on his mouth.

The feud continued.

But to give this celebration of Stan McNail a bit more oomph, let’s get into the dope noticed by Paul Dobish.

Arkham House collectors are going to like this one. How often do you get any new collectors info on books from Arkham?

In Thirty Years of Arkham House the print run on Something Breathing from 1965 was recorded by August Derleth as only 500 hardcover copies. One of the few Arkham titles printed by Villiers in England, using green cloth for the boards instead of the usual Holliston Black Novelex so familiar to fans of the press.

In the course of running his Other Worlds bookstore, Paul Dobish saw several copies of Something Breathing pass through his hands.

“As both a collector and bookseller,” Dobish reports, “I would compare multiples when I had them to see which copy I wanted to keep as a collector and which to put up for sale as a bookseller.

“It was in the course of doing such a condition check that I happened upon the fact of two different shades. Since then, I have seen more than a single copy of each shade.”

In short, Arkham collectors — and especially for the completists who must have each and every permutation of items from the press — Something Breathing is bound in two distinctly different shades of green. At least.

Dobish says, “I do not know how many were bound in one shade versus the other shade. It is also possible that there are more than two shades, although my guess would be that there are not.

“One — let’s call it pine — I would say is more of a green-green. The other —olive-ish — I would describe as more ‘muddy’, that is towards being a brown-green rather than a green-green.

“But even if you are pretty certain which green you have, if you go seeking the other green elsewhere, how do you get someone to describe their green well enough to know whether it is the one you have or the one you do not have?”

Scans are imperfect enough it might be hard to get the idea across. It’s not as if one cloth is green and one purple. Both green.

But let’s give it a shot. At top  the “muddy” or subdued green — that’s what I have on my copy.

The bottom is the more vibrant, more “Irish” green.

Happy hunting.

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