Sâr Dubnotal vs. Jack the Ripper, anonymous, translated by Brian Stableford, Black Coat Press, 2009
The Conquistador of the Invisible!
The Napoleon of the Immaterial!
The Grandmaster of Psychognosis!
I’m not going to kid you, this is at best cheap dime novel fiction, originally published in 1909, but how can you not like a story that jumbles up haunted houses, buried yogis, Jack the Ripper, spiritualism, possession, gruesome murder and the Flying Dutchman? Who ever said that story had to make sense? Norvell Page got away with this same technique for years in The Spider magazine. And even Raymond Chandler said that when things got slow or complicated in a detective story, just have someone come through the door with a gun in their hand.
Whether the entertainment factor of this serial novel is due to some unseen underlying strengths in the characters and story or to Brian Stableford’s translation, there is an energy and sense of the weird that is missing in far too many more famous occult detective stories. The byline actually says “adapted by Brian Stableford rather than “translated by”, but though he slips in a reference to the Necronomicon, a Saamaa Ms. that recalls Carnacki’s favorite ritual and, I suspect, moved the hero’s London HQ to Cheyne Walk, overall the prose reads quite authentically for the period. It’s hard to fake the insane, by-the-seat-of-your-pants plotting and state-the-obvious dialogue.
Sâr Dubnotal, aka Severus el Tebib, originally appeared in a series of twenty paper covered booklets over the course of 1909. Although Black Coat Press’s promotional material refers to them as pulps, they are closer in format and writing style to our Nick Carter and England’s Sexton Blake dime novel adventures.
The stories were written anonymously, and except for the five novels that make up this collection, all were stand-alone tales. Needless to say, the originals are very rare, so rare in fact that no copy of the middle novel of this serial, issue no. 8, could be located. The events are summarized in the body of the following novel, but, as in most dime novel fiction, the loss doesn’t weigh very heavily on the comprehension or enjoyment of the storyline.
Like Nick Carter, and later, Doc Savage, the Spider and the Shadow, Dubnotal has a band of stalwarts who assist him. Rudolph is his redoubtable assistant, a student of the master’s mysteries and the man who keeps the bags packed for the almost constant immediate travel needs; Annunciata Giametti, a nervous psychic who seldom speaks on her own and, in a rare bit of character development, gives the impression that she would really rather not go through this stuff again; Naini, a Hidu servant; and Otto, Frank and Frejus, three investigators (German, English and French) who are masters of their craft, who have left private careers to do the master’s bidding. The friendly bickering amongst them casts the shadows of Monk and Ham.
Trying to coherently summarize the outrageous, convoluted story is a fool’s errand. Each episode’s storyline is distinct from the others, though without the sense of having been planned out that way; there is far too much obvious flailing about in the plotting to indicate much planning of any kind. It’s possible that the books weren’t even planned as a serial to start. So let’s give it an incoherent summary….
Book One , The Haunted Manor of Crecc’h-ar-van, revolves around a haunted house that looms above a French seaside village. Mysterious deaths claimed the lives of two of the former occupants, Count de Tréguilly and his aging father. Only the Comtesse Tréguilly and her two daughters survived and they left the province after the first reported sightings of the ghost(s). The house has been unrentable since that time.
Sâr Dubnotal, vactioning with his entourage in the area, looks into the haunting first in order to show up a pushy non-believer in the holiday crowd, but as details reveal themselves, his unerring sense of justice comes to dominate. For love of a mysterious Russian noble, the Comtesse betrayed both her father-in-law and her husband, murdering both of them for the inheritance. Sâr Dubnotal takes up the trail.
The master villain beind it all, Tserpchikopf, whom we will discover is also a master hypnotist, the King of the criminal gang known as the Chessmen AND Jack the Ripper (Pile it on thick, o Anonymous One!) is off stage for this first act.
Book 2, Tserpchikopf , the Bloody Hypnotist, has Sâr Dubnotal following the trail to Paris, where Tserpchikopf is working Parisian spiritualists with his hypnotism act — the two ideas are essentialy merged into one here. Sâr Dubnotal exposes him, thus earning the Russian’s undying enmity.
Book 3, The Astral Trail, is the missing novel. The synopsis in Book 4 peels the psychic onion down another layer, revealing that Tserpchikopf is the criminal mastermind/master strategist behind the Chessmen, a criminal gang that has been plaguing Paris.
That next novel, The Quartered Woman of Montmartre, kicks off with a gruesome murder, as an unknown woman is found quartered in a hotel hallway, having been tied between an elevator and its cage; the force of the moving car tore her apart. The police are baffled, and to make matters worse, the body of the unidentified woman is stolen out of the morgue by a mysterious Man in Black wielding awesome hypnotic power. Could it be, dare we say, I think we might, Tserpchikopf?? The woman was the former Queen of the Chessmen, now replaced by the Comtesse.
Without any apparent rhyme or reason, the trail veers to London in Book 5, Jack the Ripper. Tracking the fiend to one of his underground layers, the heroic group are soon compromised and arrested as a collective Jack the Ripper. Fortunately, Dubnotal has a signed note from one chief of police or another and goes along with the gag only to draw Tserpchikopf out into the open. The ruse succeeds, but through his mastery of disguise, Tserpchikopf manages to escape their clutches once again. Surprise! It’s only temporary! While in custody, Dubnotal, via Annunciata, sent a telepsychic message to Frejus, one of his investigators. Frejus tracks the villain even as he (Tserpchikopf, of course), thinks he is evading Dubnotal’s reach! Frejus tracks Tserpchikopf to Whitechapel, where the villain is leading yet another false life, this time as a friendly and evidently helpful neighborhood doctor!
Playing on this compassionate side of the fiend, Dubnotal lures the doctor into the local saloon, where Annunciata, in a gesture worthy of Harry Potter, flicks her wand and suspends Tserpchikopf against the ceiling. Tearfully, Tserpchikopf announces that he set up the Ripper murders to distract Sâr Dubnotal from tracking him down on the other charges.
You figure it out.
And there is still one novel left to go!
Book 6, Posthumous Hatred relates the sad fate of the Comtesse – you remember her, don’t you? — and Tserpchikopf’s attempts to inflict his nasty temper from beyond the grave.
Like Doc Savage, Sâr Dubnotal has a rehabilitation center, Redemption Island, where those criminals capable of being taught a new life are sent rather than to jail. The Comtesse de Tréguilly, also knwon as Azilis, has been there for many years – did I fail to mention that this long adventure takes place across the span of 15 years, from 1890 to 1904? — and she is now well enough to be reunited with her daughters, whom Dubnotal has had raised privately — did I mention that he also possesses great wealth, drawn from his discovery of how to transmute metals into gold and ‘exploitation’ of the pearl beds of Ceylon?
Yet she (or possibly, her conscience) is haunted by the demonic spirit of Tserpchikopf, a larva, according to the odd definition of the author. On the voyage back to France, accompanied by Naini, the passenger ship is beset by a mysterious fog bank, out of which sails the Flying Dutchman — honest! The phantom ship passes through the passenger ship, its sole purpose apparently to deposit a large black Newfoundland on deck. It is immediately friendly to the Comtesse. (In a later lunatic passage, Sâr Dubnotal surmises that the black Newfoundland actually booked passage on the Flying Dutchman for this very purpose.)
Yes, Tserpchikopf is back, his agenda less clear than at any time previously in the tale; he quickly abandons the dog’s boneless carcass to take up residence in one of the Psychogogue’s pet birds.
How can I even do justice to the battle of birds that follows? Yes, battle of birds. An owl and a curlews, Dubnotal’s pets, one possessed by the spirit of the Bloody Hypnotist, the other by the long-buried yogi, Ranijesti, whom the good Sâr occasionally calls on for help.
But wait! There’s more! Azilis dies upon meeting her children, crushed by the shame of her past actions. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Sâr Dubnotal finds it fitting that her sould should be forever paired with Tserpchikopf’s, so that she might prevent his larva from doing any more harm.
As goofy and stilted as the ‘story’ is, some weird, evocative scenes are salted throughout the narrative:the aforementioned encounter with an unfriendly ghost (the anti-Casper?) in a family crypt, a conversation with a buried Yogi, both transmitted through the reluctant Annunciata; the details of the murder, the morgue at the police station, Jack the Ripper’ underground layer, and even the vision of the Flying Dutchman.
As is the norm, Dubnotal has little characterization. His ‘powers’ are vague, ranging from launching “effluvia” at people he wishes to hypnotize (the term refers to a psychic liquid that carries the mesmeric influence) to psychic empathy, but he relies mostly on his mediums and a few mechnical devices like his psychic camera/projector.
Black Coat Press is the brainchild of the L’Officier brothers; thanks to the miracle of print on demand, they have done us all a great service by making incredibly obscure French fiction available, as well as new tales and a history or two. The adventures of the Nyctalope, the Blak Coats, Fantômas and others are both reprinted AND continued by a stable of writers. A few of these gems are targets for future reviews.
The only downside is that for their relatively high price ( Sâr Dubnotal vs. Jack the Ripper is $24.95 for 355 pages), the BCP proofreading is embarrassingly bad, often with two or three typos to a page, They are all of the kind spell-checkers wouldn’t catch — widows for windows, grinds for grounds, and so on; they can easily be figured out, but to have so many is really annoying.
Evening things out a bit, even if you don’t enjoy the bad fiction as well as I do, there are the terrific and informative introductions that detail the history of the magaazines and characters. Stableford’s introduction to this volume includes a survey of French occult history that is more than worthwhile.