Shiela Crerar, Psychic Investigator, by Ella Scrymsour, edited by Jack Adrian, Ash Tree Press, 2006, in a limited edition of 500 copies, $44.00
Christopher and Barbara Rodens, the dedicated fanatics behind Ash Tree Press, bestow so great a gift on fandom by publishing rare and obscure supernatural fiction in beautifully designed limited editions that it seems almost curmudgeonly to write a less than glowing review of one of their books. But some works are obscure for a reason other than poor marketing. Much as I am personally glad to have all these stories to read, that doesn’t rescue the mediocre and worse from their lack of quality.
The six Sheila Crerar stories are a case in point. They first appeared in the Blue magazine from May to October, 1920. The Blue itself is so obscure that you are unlikely to ever run across a copy yourself outside of a very thorough English library, or the stacks of a major and long-time collector. The Crerar stories, along with most of the stories that appeared in the Blue, have never been reprinted. Unless the editors happened to get a cast-off story from a popular writer like A.M. Burrage, the quality level of the fiction was apparently snake-belly low.
But these six stories have been rescued from oblivion by Jack Adrian, and author Scrymsour manages to insert a number of interesting notions into her first several stories before running out of steam. And outside of Luna Bartendale, the psychic heroine of Jesse Douglas Kerruish’s The Undying Monster(1922), I can’t think of another female psychic sleuth, and certainly none prior to Sheila Crerar.
The first story, “The Eyes of Doom”, presents not only an origin story, however maudlin, but a few enticingly scary scenes. And over the course of the series, Sheila develops a shallow-as-veneer relationship with a smitten admirer, Stavordale Hartland(!) which culminates in marriage, officially ending the series (though some enterprising young author might consider picking that thread up and running with it. “Excuse me, dearest, supper shall be a bit late this evening as I have a gibbering spirit to lay to rest in the west of Scotland.)”
In “The Eyes of Doom,” where a young Sheila, perhaps 18 or 20 years old, has been left an ‘orphan’ by the death of her uncle, she turns to psychic sleuthing solely out of the need to put bread on the table. Leasing the ancestral manor of her uncle to pay off debts, she wonders how she will make a living and goes to London, where she finds there is no work to be had. As her account dwindles, she is approached by a mysterious, elderly man, never seen again, who advises her to use her psychic gifts for the benefit of mankind. With no better proposals on hand, she promptly puts an ad in the paper…and waits. And waits. And just when it seems like there will be no answer, she gets a summons to return to her beloved Scotland to put the ‘Kildrummie Weird’ out to pasture.
From that point on, the story devolves into a fairly stock ghost story, with generational deaths, ancestral misdeeds and spirits craving justice, except that the actual appearance of the weird itself is powerfully imagined:
As she sat, she became aware that someone was looking at her, and she turned sharply round.
A pair of eyes was gazing at her, eyes so mournful, so full of grief that Sjeila felt her own fill with tears of sympathy.
And as she met the piteous gaze, she became suddenly conscious of the fact that the eyes were not framed by a face! She rose with a startled exclamation of horror, and turned away, but to her right another pair of eyes appeared, eyes this time that were mad with hate; eyes so filled with loathing and malevolence that Sheila backed away from them in fear. But now the whole chapel seemed filled with the ghastly sight. Eyes with expression, eyes without! Eyes kind, eyes cruel! Eyes imbecile, eyes fanatical! Eyes with every expression in them that man could conceive.
Sheila put out her hands to beat the swelling mass away, but even as her arms were extended in front of her they were caught in a ghostly vise, and she was dragged to the vestry door.
“The Death Vapour” is so complex for a fifteen page story that it would take almost as long to describe it as to read it. The primary gimmick is the will of a recently deceased gentleman that stipulates his wife must remain in the house for a full year after his death in order to obtain the inheritance. Mysteriously, all the crucifixes have been removed from the house. Add a ghost that can only be seen in a shaft of moonlight, a vicious attack on Sheila that leaves her slimed, badly burned and blind, with something invisibly dining on her blood,plus a hidden crypt, monks walled up alive for performing the Black Mass and a just plain nasty ex-husband and it’s just a ding-nabbed shame that the story isn’t better than it is. But it never drags, I’ll give it that.
The quality takes a big dip in”The Room of Fear” as a room that has been sealed up for ages proves NOT to be an ideal guest bedroom, due to the ubiquitous iniquitous crime performed there centuries before. quakity then falls of a cliff to land on “The Phantom Isle.” I swear, it just doesn’t pay to be a lineal descendant of anybody anymore; despite the gruesome history of the family and the island, this adventure almost has more in common with Brigadoon than standard ghost story fare.
“The Werewolf of Rannouch” is the biggest missed opportunity in the collection. It is even more jam-packed than “The Death Vapor” and reads almost as if it were a synopsis for a novel. It starts in medias res, with Sheila already on the job, tracking down a mysterious killer in the wintry countryside around the little village of Dhuvhair. Cattle and sheep, pigs and dogs and chickens have been found disembowled, their throats torn. Thye first assumption is a mad sheep dog, but the disappearance of children calls for closer scrutiny and darker theories.
Of course, Sheila’s first thought is that it is a werewolf, though her conception of the creature is unusual:
“It is another form of the “Jekyll and Hyde” theory, that’s all, only a much worse form. The astral spirit leaves the body in a sleeping condition, while it assumes an animal shape itself. Thus free, it roams round the world at will and lengthens its existence by drinking fresh, warm blod drawn from a new kill.”
When she first gets sight of it, she, true to her nature, charges it, but it escapes. Still she stays on the case, and though the period of time isn’t tied down definitely, internal evidence points to the passing of at least several weeks.
The identity of the werewolf is apparent from the first page of the story, though Scrymsour manages the deft trick of almost leading the reader astray with two other suspects before falling back on the secret that only the characters in the story could fail to have guessed.
“The Wraith of Fergus McGinty” is one of those unusual and usually unsuccessful “nice” ghost stories, where the spirit of a faithful servant looks out for the best interests of another of those pesky heirs. The story stands out more because it officially wraps the series up, as Sheila decides to forego further ghost huntings and grant Stavordale’s heartfelt wish to love, cherish and protect her until death they do part.
Despite the basically hack writing, there is an odd attractiveness about Crerar. She tends to rush towards every evil spirit she meets, like the spring on a rat trap at a very heavy rat; this makes her either incredibly brave, or stupid. None of Carnacki’s careful preparation for her, even after she is almost killed by such a move in “The Death Vapor.” She has no well organized theories of psychic phenomena, which is preferable to the long-winded, cobbled-together nonsense of one John Silence, but still unsatisfying. Yet somehow, she still manages to come across as more interesting than most of the cardboard sleuths that stalk this peculiar fictional niche. Perhaps it’s her youth and incredible naiveté that does it. In any case, I’d read any new adventures that turned up, whether by Scrymsour or an admiring fan.
As is usual in these psychic detective volumes from Ash Tree, the most entertaining part is the long introduction (it takes up 28 pages of the volume’s roughly 130 pages) by editor Jack Adrian. It rambles around more like a fireside conversation than an actual essay, but Mr. Adrian convinced me long ago that absolutely no one on the planet knows more than he about popular, and in particular, supernatural, fiction and the magazines that featured them from the 19th century through the 21st. I am hereby starting a campaign for Mr. and Ms. Roden to commission a complete history of at least the popular fiction magazines from 1880 to 1960 from Mr. Adrian, so that all this incredible information can be found in one place instead of having to hunt through dozens of introductions to piece it all together.