The Casebook of Miles Pennoyer by Margery Lawrence, Ash Tree Press, 2003
Excepting Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, Margery Lawrence is far and away the best writer of those authors thus far examined in this series on occult detectives. Her evocations of location, from wild, rolling forests to conventional drawing rooms to the shattered remains of bombed-out London, and her ability to make some otherwise very unremarkable characters both believable and interesting deserves a big round of applause. Her stories in this volume are much longer than your standard occult detective tale, novellas more than short stories, and there are a scattering of moments of exquisite other worldliness and horror that rank with the best of the best.
All of which makes me wish that this talent had been used in the service of something beyond extended soap operas and occult pedagogy. While these six long stories, novellas really, are all eminently readable, they are still rather tame ghost or occult stories and don’t offer much to a horror fan.
Miles Pennoyer is a likeable, decent fellow, but, as usual, the least developed character in the series, as if possessing great psychic knowledge were enough. He is, for the most part, another know-it-all, though far less annoying than John Silence or Dr. Taverner. His chronicler, Jerome Latimer, is sharper and better developed than most of his kind, not quite so given to exclaiming “ Dash it all, Pennoyer, what the deuce is going on?”at every dip and turn in the investigation. He’s no more well-informed than Hubbard or Dodgson or the others, just more confident that his friend has things under control.
The Casebook of Miles Pennoyer is the first of two volumes collecting Lawrence’s Pennoyer stories. (Ash Tree Press has published three other collections of Lawrences’s supernatural fiction, The Floating Cafe, Nights of the Round Table and The Terraces of Night.) The second volume has not been scheduled as yet.
The first story, “The Case of the Bronze Door”, gets off to an eerie start as Pennoyer visits an old friend recently married and returned from the East. On his travels, the friend purchased a large antique Chinese bronze door and had it installed along one wall in his apartment. Since that time, trouble has been brewing between him and his wife, who loathes and fears the door.
Even Pennoyer can immediately see that his friend is obsessed with the door and the psychic doctor’s own keen senses detect a destructive force beyond the door. He knows that if he were to break the lock and open the door he would not find the wall behind it but the entrance to another world.
As Pennoyer relates the tale, he off-handedly refers to several of his technique, all of which are enticing : the Ritual of Hloh, the Min Yiu process, the Yimghaz test. None of these is ever mentioned again, at least in the five remaining stories.
The moment building to the opening of the door and its mysteries are first rate, reminiscent of the best Carnacki adventures. Any hopes for a thrilling denouement are quickly dashed, however, as the doors open and a beautiful Chinese princess enters the room. The story quickly devolves into that of a romantic triangle spread out over several reincarnations and thousands of years. Though the Chinese princess is fierce and obsessed with reclaiming her lost lover, Pennoyer sets things right by talking her out of it! It seems Pennoyer is also a reincarnated soul from that same period and at one time was the woman’s teacher. Pleading patience and the time needed for the young man to work out some misdeeds from his previous life, Pennoyer convinces the girl to go back behind the door and wait until the natural reunification on the psychic plane.
“The Case of the Haunted Cathedral” pretty much gives up its game in the title, and paints a pretty tedious portrait of the psychic detective’s job, essentially a prolonged stakeout. It’s the least affecting story in the collection. The dark reasons behind the haunting are strained and Pennoyer’s involvement in the climactic exorcism amounts to sitting in the pews while sending psychic support to the officiating priest.
One recurring Lawrence archetype in these stories is that of the money loving, social climbing, cold hearted upperclass bitch that tries to control all those around her for her own selfish ends. “The Case of Emma McLeod” presents the prime example of this in the character of Lady Angus, lately married to a friend of Pennoyer’s. She is one of the most powerful characters in the book, yet she serves little purpose in the story save to put pressure on her maid servant, the homely, love-starved and lonely Emma McLeod. Almost from the moment we see her tending the wounded paw of a stray dog in the forest, the denouement is clear. Pennoyer is at his most ineffective, a largely passive bystander who fails to offer any useful help to the maid despite his liking and sympathy for her. The story is not a failure; in fact, I enjoyed it despite its fairly preachy tone, but as an occult detective tale, its almost not worth noting.
“The Case of the White Snake” is another story that delivers an example of Lawrence’s prowess as a writer of the fantastic, offering an entertaining read and a few moments of true wonder despite an outcome that is fairly predictable and a plot which, minus its occult elements, would serve as a thread for As the World Turns. The coincidences which bring an unidentified orphan and her lost father together at a country orphanage run by Pennoyer’s cousin are minimized by believable, sympathetic characterizations, but the resolution could have been handled by any modestly talented detective.
At eighty pages, “The Case of the Young Man’s Scar” is the longest tale in the book, and again it is a testament to Lawrence’s writing skills that this otherwise tepid tale holds one’s attention. A young man with an unusual scar on his arm, a scar that lately has been turning red at odd moments, seeks Pennoyer’s aid. Unless the strange circumstances of the scar can be cleared up, the young man feels he cannot marry his true love, the daughter of one of Pennoyer’s old friends and fellow occultist.
Like A Study in Scarlet, the explanation is so complex that it is related as a story within the story, and while interesting, it also hovers just above that soap opera level with its romantic triangle and romanticized notions of ‘Red Indian’ mysticism. The standout character, Francine Legros, is the ultimate expression of Lawrence’s evil woman, driven by shallow yet powerful motives. But there is no terror in the story, just a mystery with occult overtones. Pennoyer has little to do but apply a few psychic balms along the way.
“The Case of the Leanabh Sidhe” has a climactic scene of terror that rivals the best of the best, though the story surrounding it, well written and told, is still a fairly drawn out tale of a changeling. Interestingly, Pennoyer gives a nod to the Electric Pentacle as a defensive device, but unable to use one in the wilderness where he he faces down the King of Fairies, he uses a Holy Rope instead. I have no idea if there is such a thing as an Electric Pentacle or whether this was a bit of a nod to Hodgson’s Carnacki, but it softened me a little more toward Pennoyer.
These stories first appeared after World War ii, and the war is referenced several times, but the spirit of times past inhabits every nook and cranny. A nostalgia for an England lost forever? Or simply the best setting for these types of tales?
In the end, if the tension and horror are what you seek, this is not the book for you. Pennoyer is more a psychic Marcus Welby than an adventure hero. These stories are the workof someone who, in a gentle but direct way, are advertisments for the occult cause. But if you’re a fan of genre fiction in general, you’ll pass a handful of enjoyable hours with Ms. Lawrence’s creation. I’m looking forward to the second volume, and to reading her other collections.