Joseph Payne Brennan has always had the reputation of a greatly under appreciated master of fantasy, a poetic stylist that just never managed to break into the front ranks. Stephen King, Les Daniels and Charles Grant are just a few of those front ranks to cite him as a major influence. Arkham published three collections of his stories and poetry, while Donald M. Grant published nine.
Lucius Leffing, Brennan’s private investigator and psychic sleuth, features in four of the Grant books, three short story collections (of which this is the second) and a novel length adventure, Act of Providence. They are highly regarded in fandom.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself struggling through a series of weak tea Holmesian pastiches, just an ever-so-slight notch above basic fan boy fiction. Given that this is some of Brennan’s later work, I would expect this to be among his most professional if not most interesting book.
More disappointing, only two of the eight stories in this volume are occult “investigations.” I don’t know if the other books are similarly weighted to the mundane mysteries, but I am not planning on finding out.
The formula of the narrator “visiting my old friend, Lucius Leffing” at his quaint and eclectic Victorian digs (even though the series is set in the contemporary world) is given a supposed ‘twist’ by Brennan identifying himself as the narrator. Intended or not, the gimmick adds a thick layer of artificiality on stories already burdened with too many obstructions to engagement. Same thing with the Victorian style of the prose and the Victorian manner of the main characters. Why Brennan went to all this trouble, then decided to set the stories in the 1970s is one of those weird choices writers some times inexplicably make.
“The Case of the Hertzell Inheritance” leads off the collection. A Miss Camlee is certain her cousin, Hamilton Hertzell, has been murdered, though the attending physician of the small town of Brandelmere Falls puts Cousin Hamilton’s death down to a heart attack.She relates the details, the various townspeople involved and her suspcions in tedious detail, prodded by equally tedious questions from Leffing. Of course, given the title of the story, there is a will involved.
It’s a red herring, of course, and we find out that Hamilton was not only nearly bankrupt, but quite the scoundrel as well. Leffing and Brennan walk about town, asking questions, gathering information, little of which turns out to be pertinent. The one clue that does lead to the solution of the crime is, as Leffing admits, a leap of faith, a “long shot” which just happens to hit the mark. Unfortunately for the reader, Leffing then has to explain all the details.
A sample of the dialogue between Leffing and Brennan:
“We must not be too hard on Jenkins, in spite of his limitations,” Leffing answered. “Batarachotoxin is a highly effective cardiotoxin. It interferes with conduction in the heart, brings about extrasystoles and ventricular fibrillation. It sees scarcely surprising that an elderly village doctor certified a heart attack.”
“Good heavens, Leffing! We must be dealing with an erudite murderer of extreme resourcefulness.”
Brennan also has the extremely tiresome habit of having the speaker identify who is being spoken to by constantly tagging their name onto the end of the sentence….even when there are only two people present. Perhaps Leffing and Brennan have trouble telling each other apart.
“The Case of the Mystified Vendor” chronicles the tale of a sandwich wagon owner who has been paid to park his wagon on a particular street on a particular day, supposedly as part of an area survey. He takes the money, then feels something is wrong and seeks out Leffing. Leffing and Brennan watch from a distance on the appointed day, solves the mystery, then trots us back to his ‘digs’ to explain that the sandwich wagon was parked over a manhole cover, through which a bank robber planned to escape.
This is a far cry from “The Red-Headed League,” closer instead to serials of the 1950s like Capt. Video or Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion. The story’s main strength is that it is among the shortest in the book.
“The Apple Orchard Murder Case” is more or less a reversal of the “Hertzell Inheritance”: a brother who has blown through his inheritance has been murdered in the small town where he lived. Leffing’s reasoning, however clumsy, determines that the man had used a metal detector and found an extremely rare Liberty nickel.
By this time I am starting to notice the lack of occult, psychic or even mild fantasy elements in the stories. Did I get my facts confused? A quick check of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy reconfirmed my original notion: Leffing is listed among the psychic sleuths.
“Mem’ries” is a slight tale about a little old lady who is slowly poisoning Brennan via correspondence because he wouldn’t use her poetry in a magazine he edited.
“The Murder of Mr. Matthews” and “The Possible Suspects” are more of the same.
“The Dead of Winter Apparition” is the first of the occult tales. I can’t be sure if it’s actually better written or whether I am just responding to the fact that the subject is more to my expectations. It’s a pretty stock plot about a haunted house; Leffing’s investigation comes down to merely finding the person who can relate the terrible deed she done to cause the haunting. It’ an interesting back story, but leads only to the unearthing and Christian reburying of the revenant’s bones.
Finally, ” The Nightmare Face” presents a mysterious, horrific face at the window of a timid scholar. The source of the haunting is in the scholars bell collection (!) one of which was used by lepers in the Middle Ages to warn the town folk of their approach. (The scholar also collects hitching posts, and most of the emphasis is put on that hobby, as a red herring.) Thank goodness the scholar revealed he had the habit of occasionally ringing some of his bells before bedtime, or Leffing would never have had a clue.
Sigh. The quest continues….
Dion Fortune, neé Violet Mary Firth, is still popular among occult circles. According to the tediously detailed introduction by Jack Adrian, there are at least three full length biographies out there, none of which is accurate; the group she founded, The Society of Inner Light, is still going, though they are very protective of details about her life and papers.
Most of her work was non-fiction, laying out her vision of occultism and its practice. She wrote several novels, but her best known fictional work is The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, a collection of short stories featuring the occult specialist of the same name. The first six appeared in the Royal Magazine in 1922; five more appeared in the 1926 hardcover edition, and a final one added at a later time. Though he is included in the company of occult detectives, Taverner really is a doctor, with an office in Harley Street, London, and a nursing home in Hindhead, where he deals with people troubled by various psychic afflictions. He is aided, and his adventures recorded, by Dr. Eric Rhodes, a former army surgeon with the requisite case of shattered nerves seeking employment, and who has the barest traces of undeveloped psychic powers. Rhodes plays a far more active part in the stories than the usual amanuensis, often to the point of being the hero.
Let’s be clear, these are not adventure stories. They tend to unfold fairly slowly, and largely through conversation rather than action. Fortune is a pleasing writer, bizarrely quotable, but the Taverner stories fall short of must-read status because of three unfortunate flaws: she gives away her story climaxes in her titles, at least in the earlier tales; Taverner is a paternalistic know it all on the order of John Silence, instantly recognizing the problem at hand as well as the solution, explaining it in some detail to those sad lesser mortals not steeped in the occult; and, most egregious of all, Fortune is unable to separate her evangelism from her story-telling. Fortune manages to redeem herself at the very end, casting all the stories in a new light, but still, if you’re looking for entertaining tracts on occult beliefs (with little evidential support) then this is the book for you.
The lead story, “Blood Lust,” starts with Rhodes, just out of the R.A.M.C., seeking employment. The agency has one job that it has been unable to fill for some time, and thus does Dr. Rhodes come to meet Dr. Taverner at the Halsey Street consulting room. Taverner is tall, ascetic, of indeterminate age –all mainstays of popular fiction heroes of the era– and prefers cases that have been failed by traditional psychology. Rhodes is a skeptic, thinking Freud provides the most coherent answers to such problems.
Their first patient, brought to their attention by his ex-fiance, is a war vet who has apparently lost his mind, tearing around the countryside ripping the throats out of chickens and once even biting his former love. Under questioning at the Hindhead nursing home, Taverner finds that the man has developed a blood-lust due to the horrors experienced in the trenches during the war. No, not exactly a blood lust (because he doesn’t care for underdone meat!) but a vitality hunger, which is “quite a different matter.”
“That’s exactly it. I have never been able to put it into words before, but you have hit the nail on the head.” the man tells Taverner.
Taverner quickly discerns that this vampire is actually under the influence of the spirit of a German soldier, “a corpse insufficiently dead,” which seeks to satisfy its own hunger through the young man. Taverner separates the two, and a cure is effected, though not after some rather longwinded explanations of the mechanics of such possession.
“The Return of the Ritual” deals with a secret manuscript stolen in the Middle Ages that contains a certain ritual practiced in the mysterious and secret White Lodge of which Taverner is a member. The manuscript has resurfaced, and a Black Lodge (in Chelsea, if you’re interested; they meet on Fridays) is after it. Bad news. “I would even go so far as to say the course of civilization would be affected if such a thing occurred,” Taverner tells Rhodes.
Taverner is a great one for making “certain” signs and leaving his body to go searching in the Akashic Records, the 411 of all the thoughts of all humans that have ever lived. He tracks down the reincarnated soul of the man who originally stole the manuscript, and plants a directive for the man to retrieve it. Civilization is saved, and the manuscript is returned to the White Lodge.
Arnold Black, famed aviator, seeks Dr. Taverner’s help in “The Man Who Sought,” after a plane crash leaves him obsessed with speeding recklessly around the countryside in search of…well, he doesn’t know. Taverner is quick to spot the so-obvious problem: Black was “hypnotized the spiral of the crash and he got into that particular part of his memory where the pictures of previous lives are stored.” Black is looking for a woman.
Taverner locates the woman reincarnate psychicly (dang, those Akashic Records are handy) and brings them together, but Black is killed. Fortunately, her love brings his drifting spirit back into his body. Reunited lovers is one of Fortune’s main tropes.
In “The Soul That Would Not Be Born” a mother explains her daughter Mona’s problem: “When they put her in my arms after she was born, she looked up at me with the most extraordinary expression in here yes; they were not a baby’s eyes at all, Doctor, they were the eyes of a woman, and an experienced woman too, She didn’t cry, she never made a sound, but she looked as if she had all the troubles of the world upon her shoulders. That baby’s face was a tragedy…In few hours, however, she looked quite like an ordinary baby, but from that time to this she has never changed, except in her body.” The girl is apparently mentally deficient.
Taverner “invariably” finds that “congenital troubles originate in a former life.” Therefore, he leaps into action by…taking a nap, once again to consult the Akashic Records. Lo and behold, as the daughter of a duke in fifteenth century Milan, she was involved in a rather nasty betrayal of a lover; at her birth in this life, her soul refused to enter the child’s body in order to avoid the payment in suffering her debt demands. Taverner gives a tidy, summation of the mental processes that precede birth with a straight face before announcing that all he can do to cure the poor girl is to “wait and watch her.”
And wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be a shell-shocked vet receiving treatment at the home who happens to be…well, if you guessed he is the reincarnation of the betrayed lover, pass Go and collect $200. The two hook up, each gains peace before the man, cured, leaves to marry his fiance. Now Mona’s repayment truly begins.
Taverner comments to Rhodes on the young man’s marriage. “They will be in love for a year, then will come disillusionment and after they have bumped through the crisis, held together by the pressure of social opinion, they will settle down to the mutual toleration which passes for a successful marriage. But when he comes to die, he will remember this Mona Cailey and call for her, and as he crosses the threshold she will claim him, for the have made restitution and the way is clear.”
“The Scented Poppies” involves an arcane method of murder via thought transference by sending a moonstone impressed with thoughts of suicide hidden amongst a rare breed of poppy heads stuffed with potpourri. Seriously. The scents enhance the transference of the thought from the moonstone, the recipient leaps out the nearest window. This time, even the client who brings the case to Taverner is wise to the idea if not the exact method. “One cannot account for it on any of the accepted theories, but if one admits the feasibility of thought transference, and pretty nearly everybody does nowadays, then it seems to me that it wold be possible to give a mental suggestion to these men to commit suicide.” With minimal effort, Taverner turns the tables on the murderer, who leaps to his death from an embankment.
In a similar vein, a would-be suitor (and member of a Black Lodge) sends a large black dog to haunt the young woman’s intended in “The Death Hound.” Taverner is at his most tedious in this story, and nearly all of the action is revealed through conversations; the good doctor wraps the whole case up on the last page by showing the evil wizard a ring that reveals Taverner as “The Senior of Seven.” Taverner orders him to recall the black hound, and the man obliges. But as Taverner knows, the hound now haunts the man, and runs him to his death.
“A Daughter of Pan” brings another mentally deficient young lady into Taverner’s care, though Rhodes carries the burden of the story. His confusion is apparent from the start: “..The girl looked a typical low-grade defective. Now, defectives fill me with nothing but disgust, my pity I reserve for their families, but the girl before me did not inspire me with disgust, but only pity.” Well said, doctor; lack of compassion combined with contradiction.
As the title indicates, the girl is a child of nature, and her mental state the result of the restrictions her family has placed upon her. As she discovers her true nature, Rhodes falls in love with her, and begins to discover suppressed cravings of his own. Alas, once again there is another tenant in the house, a young despondent man who, upon meeting Diana, begins to play strange music on the violin. Eventually, the nature gods come for Diana, and as Taverner and Rhodes watch, Rhodes starts to follow her. Taverner restrains him, observing ” This is not for you, Rhodes. You have too much mentality to find your mating here.” (!) Diana and the violinist, both children of Pan, marry and set off for a life as gypsies.
Taverner barely makes an appearance in “The Subletting of the Mansion,” other than to get it rolling with an observation about the new tenants next door. The man remains inside, but the woman is glimpsed going to the post box. Taverner is saddened. “If a woman’s face is younger than her figure then she is happily married; if the reverse, then she is working out a tragedy.”
Winnington, a tubercular patient at Hindhead and a lower member of the same secret order to which Taverner belongs, becomes obsessed with the woman. Rhodes discovers the husband is a drug addict, and does not connect it with Winnington’s sudden trance-like states. Though the end is entirely predictable, as Winnington exchanges souls with the drug addict, Though the couple is now happy, Taverner turns back up to admonish Rhodes for making such a bad job of the affair (though what he could have done about it isn’t entirely clear, not being able to make “certain signs”) and to give another mini-lecture on Fortune’s own concerns. “Adultery of the soul” is an odd concept, and one seemingly frowned upon, even when the woman is unaware of the exchange, thinking her husband merely cured of his addiction. And immorality is defined concisely as ” that which retards the evolution of the group soul of the society to which one belongs.” This predates the notion that one can’t define pornography, but “I know it when I see it,” and provides further evidence that the new World Order conspiracy is succeeding in undermining everything we hold dear. Or not.
“Recalled” finds Taverner and Rhodes as mere observers to an army colonel who must pay a price for an affair with an Indian woman some years before his marriage. He doesn’t believe it at first. “If a man enters into,er..relationswith a native woman, they have an uncanny knack of laying hold of your soul by their heathen jiggery-spookery.” Ultimately he accepts his fate, which is for his beautiful white wife to bear a coal black son, disgracing them both in front of their peers. It’s an interesting comment on race and gender, but a polemic nonetheless.
“The Sea Lure” also finds Taverner absent, as Rhodes considers a young woman in a city infirmary who is suffering from what they call “stigmata”, though the wounds appear in her shoulders rather than the traditional Christian places. In a coincidence so huge that Rhodes actually has to comment on it in the story, he is dispatched to see what he can do for an old friend of Taverner’s, another occultist who lives near the sea. He has been seeing water-elementals, one in particular calling him forward. He has shot her twice…in the shoulders! Needless to say, the soul lovers are reunited and sent on their happy way.
In some ways the most entertaining of the stories is “The Power House,” which has an actual antagonist in the person of an old foe, an ugly, hunchbacked occultist named Dr. Josephus. His actual knowledge seems to fluctuate, one minute being a terrible threat, the next being a pretender. He has been luring young women away from their husbands and homes and somehow using their vitality to refresh his own withered spirit. On a pretext, Rhodes worms his way into the cult, and is invited to participate in a ritual. Taverner tags along, they waylay Josephus, and Taverner takes his place on the dais wearing an elaborate Egyptian costume; Rhodes follows up in a cowled scarlet robe,and sits quietly by as Taverner reveals himself as the Senior member of the Council of Seven and sets the captive participants free. The description of the ritual room, the costumes, the language, all are enjoyably familiar. But that’s the end of the story. Josephus is left bound in the coal bin, and whether or not he will work further misdeeds is not considered.
The final story in this collection, “A Son of the Night,” was not included in the original hardcover edition. As many other posthumous works by fortune have been issued since her death, some supposedly narrated from the beyond, there is some speculation that this story was written by someone else. it does read differently, but that could be to maturation of style as much as anything. But it is by far the best story in the book, and not so much an adventure or mystery as a revelation. Called in by a pompous, almost cartoonish Countess and family to certify their eldest son as insane so they might gain control of his inheritance, Taverner and Rhodes instead establish a kinship with him. He is another child of Pan, and Taverner gives Lord Cullan his freedom, but also gives him a patient to treat: Rhodes! The inheritance plot is not resolved, is forgotten about in fact, as the repressed soul of Rhodes is finally broken loose, and he enters the Unseen world as a companion to the other two men. Upon rereading the whole of the collection, the stories become less about Taverner’s ‘cases” and more about Rhodes education and journey to occult enlightenment. t draws together the diverse elements into a whole that makes the book ultimately worth the reading.
Although this review is based on the Ash Tree Press limited edition, there are numerous other paperback editions available.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, 1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovish
With all the brouhaha swirling around Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code these last several years, I’m really surprised that no one has been touting Foucault’s Pendulum as their next film project. Eco’s book is more the Anti-Da Vinci Code, with secret societies, the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, coded manuscripts, Rosicrucians, Kaballah, ancient secrets, dark conspiracies, etc., still driving the mystery, but with more irony and satire, and a decidedly different conclusion. Eco even tosses in a Lovecraftian reference to a Cthulhu Cult, a show of respect that Brown avoids. (And let’s not forget, Foucault’s Pendulum was written almost 20 years before Brown cobbled together his mega-bestseller.)
The two books also share the idea that people really want and perhaps need to believe in something beyond this world, though the authors take diametrically opposed views to the benefits thus provided. Whereas both protagonists unravel mysteries and discover secrets, Eco’s hero uncovers something far more terrible (or possibly, more beautiful, depending on your own beliefs) than Robert Langdon could ever imagine
I admit, it’s only by a stretch that I can classify the book as an Occult Detective entry; it is indeed about the occult and occultism, and there is a good deal of detective work involved, but the heroes are are not dedicated to either pursuit. There are no Carnackis or John Constantine’s here, just ordinary guys with the ordinary fault of being too clever for their own good.
The story is simple enough: three friends, two of which work for a vanity publisher, have read so many ridiculous, badly written, poorly thought out manuscripts relating various occult histories and theories, that they decide, as a game, to do the job right. All have knowledge of various aspects of esoteric lore. Using a word-processor (remember, this was written in the 1980s) with a program that will create new text from randomly inserted key words, they create “The Plan,” an elaborate mash-up of occult tropes that supposedly leads to the key to world domination. They also create their own ancient secret society, Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici, or Tres. This fiction becomes a game for the trio, the details of which are worked out over a period of years. Like all good occult conspiracy theories, this involves the descendants of the Templars, a secret map and an object of great occult power, in this case, Foucault’s pendulum, which is on exhibit in Paris. (Lost fans will recognize the pendulum from its appearance in Elizabeth Hawkings’ lab.)
Unfortunately for them, as an extension of the joke, they step over the line when they leak the plan to Aglié, a man who hints that he is the immortal Comte de St. Germain. He and his occult wingnuts fall for the gag (ha-ha) but the plan backfires when it becomes clear ‘they’ are willing to kill (uh-oh) for information handed down by more ancient masters than you can shake a stick at. Now in fear for their lives, the three men find themselves wondering if they perhaps they have indeed stumbled on to some Secret Knowledge. That the existence of “the Plan” is accepted so readily, with no evidence, is one of the key points of the novel, the frightening truth that there are people in the world who believe what they read in the Weekly World News. One of the best scenes in the book comeswhen the narrator, Casubon, shares the mysterious coded document which he and the others used to kick-start their game with is girl friend, and she can just as credibly decode it as a laundry list.
By turns enthralling, tedious, fabulous and frustrating, it is an almost impossible book to describe in any greater detail without getting involved in the wealth of detail which forms the background of the book. It’s an accurate summation in the same way as boiling Moby Dick down to a story about a whale and an obsessed captain. Foucault’s Pendulum is almost more valuable as a compendium of occult history and thought than a story, even as interesting as it is. Every chapter opens with a lengthy quote from one ancient occult text or another. Either Eco did an enormous amount of research on this subject, or he is even better at making up fictional arcane books than the entire Lovecraft Circle put together. I lean towards the former.
If you’re used to Dan Brown’s meat-and-potatoes style, Eco will likely be a slog, though I think a worthwhile one. He doesn’t wire neon lights on his themes, and the themes themselves are not steel-planked as they are in pulp fiction. The world is a complex place, and Eco seems to have little patience with his mental inferiors. I’ve never read The Name of the Rose, but I’ve heard that the first 100 or so pages are intentionally tedious, both to convey the experience of being a monk in Medieval times and to discourage readers who aren’t willing to work at reading. No beach reads here.
On the downside, I accept the fact the Eco is much smarter than I will ever be, but I wish he wouldn’t rub my nose in it so much. His philosophical points -and he is a philosopher first, a writer second- assume a great deal of familiarity with some very fine points of thought that I just don’t have, and he likes to insert dialogue and quotes from books in their original languages, without benefit of a translation. Italian, Latin, 14th century French — let’s face it, he runs in different circles than I do. You can find the translations online now, but in 1988 you were on your own. It’s hard to love a book that requires a separate post-doctorate degree just to understand it.
But if you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, as I most assuredly am, it is a wonderful change of pace to read a challenging, dense, original, thought provoking piece of fiction, one that refuses to talk down to its readers, one that treats the material seriously rather than an excuse for parading the old cliches out in modern dress. Eco is in many ways what Lovecraft dreamed of being, an artist, who writes for himself rather than money, and who, though he would like your company, isn’t bothered if you choose not to follow along.
My mother’s cancer is terminal; we’ll be moving her to hospice next week. She’s 88, and as they say, you have to die of something. Easy to say, especially when it’s one of your best friends
She’s obviously my priority, along with work. I’m still three weeks ahead on the strip, but you’ve probably already noted the excessive number of typos that have crept in. I will continue at whatever speed I can, but I wanted to let you know the schedule may get kind of erratic after awhile, until things settle back down.
A couple of readers have asked for a full summary of the story thus far. I haven’t time to write it, but I know one of you out there did such a summary and sent it to me. I’m looking for it, but if you could send it again (or somebody else write a new one) I’ll post it and do you an original sketch for your trouble.
Have a good weekend.
Coming out neatly between the two Frost books reviewed last week, Nevermore takes an entirely different tack. Hjortsberg sets his Conan Doyle story more or less in the ‘real’world, in a defined historical moment, and the author parades enough ‘real’ people through the story, from Damon Runyon to cameos by Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields, that he ends up giving away his boffo ending. I mean. it’s a sure bet that Buster Keaton isn’t the murderer.
1923, New York. Harry Houdini is on the warpath, exposing mediums, even going to the extreme of planting a a ruler in order to ‘discover’ it and expose the charlatan, one Opal Crosby Fletcher, aka Isis.
Meanwhile, just up the street, his good friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on a lecture tour of America, spreading the word about spiritulalism, accompanied by his wife and his three children. In addition to their differing beliefs, the two men are such contrasts that it’s a wonder they were ever even on speaking terms, much less friends. Doyle is affable, generous, quick, a bit stuffy by American standards but a gentleman; Houdini is self-centered, obsessive, blunt to the point of rudeness, yet, oddly, also a gentleman and a man of honor. Mostly.
At the same time, a woman reports that she has just seen a gorilla running down the street carrying a young blonde woman. The police pay no attention, until the woman’s body is found stuffed up a chimney. It takes an apparently well-read Damon Runyon to point out that the circumstances mirror Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” A second murder, styled after “The Story of Marie Roget” earns the madman the name of the Poe Killer.
And then Sir Arthur begins to be visited by the ghost of Poe himself.
Hjortsberg’s effective characterizations of Houdini and Doyle and deft touch with period detail actually manages to pull all this together for awhile. (I have no idea if they are accurate charcterizations, but they are credible and engaging. Pretty much everyone else in the story is a cypher or a refugee from a rustic melodrama troupe.)
But though there is a lot of furious rushing around, though the prudish Houdini gets graphically seduced by the temptress Isis, though there are several more murders that point to the idea that Houdini himself is the ultimate target of the murderer, not much really happens. You know those times when you’vebeen about to doze off near a window, and the car next to you starts to back out and you think you’re the one who is moving? Like that. Yeah,I know; I was disappointed, too. Oh, wait! Isis gets pregnant by Houdini and then performs oral sex on him in a cloak room. It’s part of her master plan. But other than that, not much else.
If there is supposed to be any dialogue here about science vs. faith, it’s lost in a general sense of indecision. Given Houdini’s elaborate efforts to prove to Doyle that his ‘magic’ consists of tricks, Doyle continues to believe the magician has real powers. As Doyle has his several visitations with Poe’s shade, there is the expectation that it will all turn out to be a trick of some sort. When it turns out to have been a real apparition, the question comes up as to why the scenes were so confused and repitious. Is this Poe’s ghost, or is this some sort of time slip? Poe certainly doesn’t seem to think he’s dead, and he throws up on occasion. This rocks Doyle’s boat a bit, as he thought the other side was all goodness and light; however, he never gets around to asking any pertinent questions.
The Poe Killer strikes again, closer to home, sealing one of Houdini’s stage hands in a coffin (“The Premature Burial.”) Houdini struggles with guilt over his two encounters with Isis. Isis acts more menacing and mysterious than ever. Damon Runyon takes Doyle to a fight and to the World Series.
And the real killer turns out to be the person you’d expect it to be, as he was the only significant fictional character besides Isis in the book. Of course, he ws going to pin it on Houdini, though why he chose the elaborate Edgar Allan Poe gimmick is never explained. Dressing up in a gorilla costume, aside from being the clue that tips the scale in Houdini’s favor, is a pretty goofy idea when setting out to frame someone.
There’s a mad dash to the rooftops, a quick denouement, and one last gruesome stunt, this time perpetrated by the two heroes pull to cover up their part in the whole affair, and that’s it. Isis no longer acts mysterious, in fact seems very forgiving; why she was so determined to have Houdini’s child is never discussed. Doyle and Houdini’s friendship has been strained. Houdini gives Doyle a picnic hamper as the author is leaving the States, which leads to an odd bit of business that is just too complicated to explain in a short space. It’s a bit of an ambiguous ending, but the most likely possibility is very out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the book.
In spite of what you might think, I did enjoy reading Nevermore. Hjortsbeg’s writing style pulled me in, and he did make score some major points, most notably in the sex scene between Isis and Houdini. In an era when sexual grappling is working its way down to the Hardy Boys and Spongebob Squarepants, it’s quite a feat to recreate the prudery of an earlier time so completely that sex is once again shocking and original. I willingly went along with the mystery as it developed, even when, toward the end, I feared I was about to fall into a shallow puddle instead of a maelstrom.
In the end, it’s not much of a detective story, and I am not clear if it can be called occult. Poe may have been a trick of Houdini’s after all, one that, like so many other elements within, remains unexplained.
My review of Shadows Over Baker Street a few weeks back reminded me of Mark Frost’s 1993 best-seller, The List of 7. If not exactly Holmes meets Lovecraft, the Arthur Conan Doyle/Jack Sparks team up and some of the occult textures have a genetic affiliation. The List of 7 is the most successful, though not the only, or even the first, use of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a fictional character.
In fact, Doyle seems almost as popular as Lovecraft insofar as a real-life author appearing as a fictional character in another writer’s work. The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, actually features Doyle and Lovecraft, united with Houdini; William Hjortsborg’s Nevermore has Doyle and Houdini trying to solve a string of murders inspired by Edgar Allan Poe; David Pirie has written a trio of books, The Patient’s Eyes, The Night Falls and The Dark Water featuring a young Doyle assisting Dr. Joseph Bell, the real inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, in a series of fictional cases; these were adapted for the BBC. And The Menagerie is a series of four dark fantasy novels by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski starring Doyle as the head sorcerer (huh?).
The earliest occurrence of Doyle as a character in someone else’s work that I’m aware of is the 1937 German film, which I would love to see, Der Mann, Der Sherlock Holmes war (The Man who was Sherlock Holmes.) In it, two detectives claim to be Holmes and Watson as they seek to recover a stolen stamp. For awhile, everyone appears to accept this, except for a slightly overweight man who breaks into uproarious laughter each time he encounters the duo. Not surprisingly, he’s billed only as ‘der Mann der Lacht’( ‘the man who laughs’.) In the end, the two men are arrested for “impersonating Sherlock Holmes,” but are saved when the Laughing Man, who is really Doyle, gives them permission to continue.
Right from the start, The List of 7 declares itself an alternate world story. Not a bad idea for a story wherein a real character is inspired by a fictional character to create a fictional character who was, in our world, inspired by a real character. And probably not a surprise coming from the man who co-created Twin Peaks with David Lynch.
Christmas Day, 1884, finds a young Dr. Doyle perusing one mind-numbing volume of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. He is on the cusp of belief, yet struggles to find a balance between science and spirit. To resolve his conflict, he has turned to writing fiction, “stories of mythic planes, dread and eldritch deeds committed by plotters of evil intent, contested by men from the world of light and knowledge..who ventured knowingly and for the most part recklessly into the darkness.” The first three novels failed to sell; the current one, The Dark Brotherhood, is making the rounds of publishers. Almost as a deliverance, he receives a mysterious message from an unknown woman, begging for his help in an occult undertaking. Remarkably, he pockets his revolver and takes a cab to the required address.
His adventure leads him to a seance, where the lady who wrote the note, Lady Nicholson, along with her brother, seek to contact the spirit of her recently dead child. The spirit comes, but the seance is abruptly disrupted. Part of it is obviously fake, but the medium turns into a monster, even as Doyle watches Lady Nicholson and her brother savagely murdered on the far side of the table by one of a group of assassins. Doyle tries to help, and is almost felled by another gang member, but a knife flies out of the blackness and lands in the attackers throat.
The thrower of that knife commands Doyle to follow. As nothing more can be done for the two innocents – her head was smashed by a mallet, his throat was sliced ear to ear with a razor– Doyle does as he’s told. A quick trot across rooftops and through alleys fails to foil the pursuing villains. In a cab, they are attacked by a man in a gray hood, and Doyle’s new friend saves him again, and rips off the bad guy’s hood. His eyes and lips had been crudely sewn up with a coarse blue thread.
And in this way, Doyle meets Jack Sparks, special agent to the Queen. It seems that Doyle’s manuscript, The Dark Brotherhood, has somehow come quite close to the truth. There is a powerful occult group seeking “to elicit the help of evil spirits in annihilating the membrane that separates the physical and etheric plane…in order to gain dominion over the material world and those who inhabit it.”
What follows is a wild occult adventure, with zombies, infanticide, mummies, betrayal, zombies, magic, chases, fights, battles, some zombies and a round or two of deductional sparring between Doyle and Sparks. There are also cameos by Blavatsky, Bram Stoker and a Sir Nigel Gull, who bears a more than marked resemblance to Sir William Gull, physician to the Queen and Alan Moore’s designated Jack the Ripper in From Hell. Oh, and intimations that may or may not mean Alexander was in league with Dracula. He might even be Dracula, or the prototype. There are moments of real horror, laced with brisk action.
Doyle is the hero of the novel, but Sparks is the memorable character. To his credit, Frost did not make Sparks a Holmes clone. While he does indeed have some of the well known traits and abilities, has VR inscribed on his wall in bullet holes, uses cocaine, he is still a fresh and entertaining character. His moods are darker, his temper hotter; his knowledge of the occult is immense; he dresses all in black and relies heavily on two assistants, a pair of inseparable brothers. This last is especially poignant as what drives Jack Sparks is the desire to defeat his own brother, Alexander, who is the embodiment of evil and the leader of the dark brotherhood. The back story of their relationship is one of the meatiest parts of the book.
The end comes rather abruptly after the destruction of Alexander’s headquarters and Jack’s revelation of a deep personal secret regarding his use of cocaine. He makes Doyle swear that the subject will never be brought up again. The next morning, Doyle awakes to fins that Jack has left him behind without explanantion.
It isn’t until some time later that Doyle hears from one of the assistants that Sparks has perished in a fight with Alexander at the top of Reichenbach Falls. In remembrance of his friend, he sits down to write a story, and you can guess what it is going to be.
And of course, bestseller status made a sequel to The List of 7 an inevitability.
Well, lightning rarely strikes twice, even if there’s occult lore behind it.
Though the dust jacket copy insists that this is not a sequel to The List of 7, but a ” spectacularly imagined novel that stands entirely in its own,” and though there is a decidedly different tone to the writing, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Alexander Sparks is the bad guy, Doyle is after him, and that Jack Sparks didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls.
This time out, the setting is America, 1894, where a gaunt mysterious preacher man is raising a city in the desert, calling disciples to him through word of mouth and a little psychic nudging. Everyone in the city dresses the same, all are terribly happy, and rules are strictly enforced.
Doyle, with his brother, Innes, is traveling by ship to America in the wake of the success of Sherlock Holmes. He’s not a bit happy about it. Diversions on board are few, save for a seance, until the theft of a rare book, the Gerona Sefer ha-Zohar, “The Book of Splendor”, from a stateroom.The owner, a man named Selig, has been murdered. He was a rare book dealer, and his partner, Stern, is the one who alerted the captain. A mysterious Irish priest skulks around, but can’t be found when he’s needed.
At the same time, a mysterious purpose tied to the New City is drawing six very special people together, including a newly arrived Ninja named Kanozuchi; an Indian woman known as Walks Alone as well as Mary Williams; a Jewish rare book dealer who has recently secured the loan of , used as a basis for Kabbalah; Eileen Temple, an actress who supplied the love interest in 7, who is now touring the west with a rundown repertory company; Cornelius Montcrief, a New York osychopath All are heading, in their own way, toward the New City.
In New York, Doyle is startled by the sudden reappearance of Jack, who, of course, was the mysterious priest. Only it’s not the Jack he knew. He is scarred, “a band of white along the left jaw, an indentation on the forehead running just below the hairline, ” As if he’d been fractured and reassembled.” and his eyes are disturbed, haunted.
In clipped tones, Jack reveals the theft of numerous important religious works around the world, of which the Zohar is only the latest. And with that they are off on the case.
Though the story moves along and the secondary characters are reasonably interesting, the threads never seem to belong to the same weave. Doyle comes to believe that Jack is completely mad, and as a reader it’s hard to disagree, a sad state for a character that was so engaging in the first novel. His condition came about as a result of that fall from the heights of Reichenbach, again making it hard not to see this book as a sequel.
The mixture of the various religions is muddled; The New City is weird but never quite rings true. The apocalyptic climax is spectacular almost to the point of overkill. Jack does find some redemption after his brother’s final defeat, but there’s not much reason to celebrate. There won’t be anymore non-sequels in this series.
I wish there hadn’t been this one.
You no doubt noticed I didn’t make a token post last week, but at least the page went up as planned. For the first time in my life I’m finding that everything around me is a top priority, which is absurd, but no matter how I look at my current obligations, I don’t see any way to push one before the other except on a moment-to-moment basis. That is truly an inefficient way to work.
But on to better things! This last week saw the premiere of Alcatraz, a show with an intriguing premise and a flabby two-hour opener. Lots of mysteries are thrown out in scatter-shot fashion, none of them engaging me enough to watch the show again. Like Fringe, I like the ideas, but the execution is dull.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday, February 12, and though I thought the first half of the season was on the slow side, I can’t wait to get back into the story. I’ve read the first 8 of the trade paperbacks, and the show follows the storyline faithfully enough to satisfy me, but throws in enough zingers to keep me guessing.
Besides slogging through Madame Bovary, Crime & Punishment and The Awakening for my MFA, I’m also reading Stephen King’s 11/23/64. It’s not horror, but I usually enjoy Mr. K’s company even on the journeys that don’t turn out so well. Thus far, the book is entertaining but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I suspect (hope) that many of these small details will come into play as the book moves to its climax. But I’m still looking forward to his sequel to The Shining with a bit more enthusiasm.
Is anyone planning to make a good horror movie anytime soon? The Devil Inside and The Darkest Hour both died miserable deaths at the boxoffice. I have no expectations for the latest Underworld installment.
But I am, on the other hand, enjoying the heck out of playing Bioshock. It’s dark side of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Within a world where absolutely everything is profit driven, things, believe it or not, went horribly wrong. The city is creepy and decaying (and located on the bottom of the sea, no less) and those citizens a player gets to meet are crazed genetic experiments-gone-wrong. I’ll get more pleasure out of this than any five movies that will be at the theatre this year (at least in this genre) and I’ve already paid for it, and I can play it again. Me like-ee. And there’s a new sequel coming out this year. Does anyone in Hollywood really wonder why theatre attendance keeps dropping about 10% a year? When guys MY age would rather sit at home and play video games, Hollywood is really in trouble.
Have a good weekend.
The Cosmical Horror of H. P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Anthology, edited by Stefano Piselli, Federico de Zigno, & Riccardo Morrochi, Glittering Images, 1991
I have no memory of ever buying this book (which sounds like an intriguing start to a Lovecraft story, doesn’t it?) but I’ve spent a few enjoyable hours with it. That’s more work than you might think, as the quality of the illustrations is mixed at best and the text is in Italian, though the word balloons in the comic pages are reproduced in English (assuming it’s from an English speaking country, that is.)
But the book is a pictorial anthology after all, and art crosses all linguistic hurdles. The scope ranges from the best of the pulp and book illustrations of HPL’s stories to movie stills to comic book stories from around the world, salted with occasional stand alone pieces. Unfortunately, even given that the book is twenty years old, it isn’t a particularly great selection of art. The big names are here –Bok, Finlay, Corben, Wrightson, Druillet– but most of their work is easily attainable in other volumes. JK Potter is represented by a single illustration, and none of the cover art from the Arkham titles are on view except for a b&w reproduction of The Outsider and others. Michael Whelan’s paperback covers are included, but there have been lots of other paperback artists taking a swing at HPL’s stories over the years. The movie section is pretty small, and pretty much ends with Carpenter’s The Thing,(1982) but curiously omitting Alien (1979).
The foreign contributions range from spectacular to amateurish to pornographic but without enough variety to make this a book to seek out, especially in light of the A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft published three years ago. Of course, that book is almost $300, which keeps it out of reach for most of us, but it sure seems like there ought to be some middle ground here. Even the Art of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, comprised of the best of the Chaosium game art, is a better buy at around $40.
Far and away the most exciting picture in the book is what I take to be a reproduction of the actual engraving of cannibalism by the brothers De Bry referred to in “The Picture in the House.
I’ve included some of the more interesting and obscure illustrations in the gallery, but unless you are some kind of completist or fanatic (is there a difference?) then this is a book you can safely pass on.
If you haven’t read Hodgson, I envy you the way I envy a young person going on their first trip abroad.You are going to see. hear, experience things that you will never forget. Despite some inconsistencies and an early death which limited his output, Hodgson’s vision of the weird and unearthly is at the very least equal to Lovecraft, Blackwood and Machen. His four fantastic novels are among the most original works of fiction I’ve ever encountered; in fact, The Nightland is probably the single most unique vision in weird fantasy, despite Hodgson’s use of a clumsy invented archaic narration style that fights the reader every step of the journey. By the end of the book, it’s hard to imagine that it could have been written any other way.
I don’t know how you find out this kind of information with any certainty, but my guess is that Carnacki the Ghost Finder is his best known and most popular work. There are nine stories in all. Five of the stories (“Gateway of the Monster,” “The House Among the Luarels,” “The Whistling Room,” “The Horse of the Invisible,” and “The Searcher of End House”) appeared in The Idler Magazine in the January through April, plus June issues of 1910.”The Thing Invisible” , wasn’t published until 1912, in The New Magazine. (It was the practice to commission series of stories in groups of six; why the stories did not all appear together is a matter for speculation.)
These six stories were collected into book form in 1913.
Many years after Hodgson’s death in World War 1, his wife discovered three additional Carnacki stories. “The Hog,” the longest of all the stories, appeared in the January, 1947 issue of Weird Tales. That story, along with”The Haunted Jarvee” and “The Find” were included in the Mycroft & Moran edition, and all subsequent printings likewise contain the complete series.
There are several qualities besides that of the writing that set Carnacki apart from all the other Occult Detectives we’ve looked at thus far:
“‘Tis curst with innocent blood an’ ye’ll be better pullin’ it down an’ buildin’ a fine new wan. But if ye be intendin’ to shtay this night, kape the big dhoor open whide an’ watch for the bhlod-dhrip. If so much as a single dhrip falls, don’t shtay though all the gold in the worrld was offered ye.”
Carnacki and his friend are accompanied by a handful of policemen, and their reactions to Carnacki’s precautions, and the inevitable ‘bhlood-dhrip’ are humorous yet entirely believable.
“We’ve got a room in this shanty which has got a most infernal whistling in it, sort of haunting it. The thing starts any time, you never know when, and it goes on until it frightens you. It’s not ordinary whistling and it isn’t the wind. Wait till you hear it.”
Saiitii manifestations – the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, used by the Ab-human Priests in the Incantation of the Raaaee–Outer Monstrosiities (which seems to be missing a few vowels; it might better be spelled ‘Ouuterr Monsstrooooositiiis.’) This is classic Carnacki, with as chilling and original an ending as you’re likely to find in weird literature..
It is the longest, and in some ways the simplest of the collection. A man comes to Carnacki, seeking help for his bad dreams. only they are much worse than dreams. They have the feel of reality, though all the man can really remember of them is grunting and howling of pigs.
From hints in the Sigsand Ms., Carnacki has been developing a new spectrum defense, an updated version of his Electric Pentacle, consisting of “seven glass vacuum circles with the red on the outisde and the colour circles lying inside it, in the order of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.” Putting on a weird rubber suit, armed with camera and sensitive sound recording gear, Carnacki fits the vacuum tubes together around himself and the dreamer. The man falls asleep…and from there on, it’s one long extended climax of horror, a visitation from the Outer Monstrosities.
That is more or less the end of Hodgson’s Ghost-finder. If, however, you want to be a completist, there is one more odd item, found in Hodgosn’s papers by Sam Moskowitz some years ago. For reasons unknown, some time after the magazine publication Hodgson re-worked four stories (“The House Among the Laurels,” ” The Gateway of the Monster,”"The Horse of the Invisible,” and “The Whistling Room.”) into a single 5,000 word short story, entitled “Carnacki, the Ghost Finder and a Poem.” It’s a summary of the four cases, and it is amazing how concise and atmospheric the piece is, though no substitute for the stories themselves. The only place I have ever seen it is in the second of Moskowitz’s Hodgson collections for Donald Grant, The Haunted Pampero. The other two books are Out of the Storm and Terrors of the Sea. All three are out of print, but worth looking up on ABE or eBay; in addition to a generous sampling of Hodgson’s short stories, each volume contains part of a long biographical essay on Hodgson by Sam, based on years and years of research . Much of it deals with sales records for the stories, and it can be tedious going if you’re not an avid historian, but it’s the best overview of WHH’s life and work out there.
Carnacki was, for a long time, a kind of cult favorite, but as fans and fandom took over the publishing industry, he started to turn up here and there as a guest star, and now has become the defining figure for his genre. He’s appeared in a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches; a new collection of original stories, No. 472 Cheyne Walk, by A.F. Kidd an Ricke Kennet was released in 2002 (and was the second book reviewed in this series.); the fourth installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has Carnacki as a member; and for those of you out there who are Lost fans, Desmond’s girlfriend, Penny, in the episode, “The Constant,” lives at No. 423 Cheyne Walk. I doubt that’s just a coincidence.
There are numerous editions of the Carnacki stories available, from their inclusion in the beautiful five-volume set of Hodgson’s complete fiction from NightShade Press to print on demand and eBooks; plus most of them are available for free online, either at Project Gutenberg or various other sites. Give yourself an early Halloween present and make the acquaintance of one of the great weird writers of all time.
B.P.R.D. books 1-14, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Dave Stewart and lot of other people, Dark Horse Books, 2003-2010.
Most of the occult investigators I’ve reviewed are Victorian or Edwardian, with a few mucking around in the 1920s. B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) is the modern equivalent. with a dash of super-hero and James Bond tossed in to liven up the mix. The cast is large and flexible; the foundational members are Dr. Kate Corrigan (occult specialist,) Abe Sapien (fishman who was originally a 19th century occultist,) Johann Kraus (a medium who lost his body and now lives in a containment suit,) Liz Sherman (fire-starter) and newest member, Andrew Devon (normal guy — what’s he doing here?) Others who move in and out of the storylines are Capt. Benjamin Daimio (a were-jaguar monster/revived dead person), Roger (a homunculus) and Panya, (a resuscitated mummy.) As the whole series spun out of Hellboy, he is also a presence, though he is on permanent leave.
B.P.R.D. is more a world than a storyline with characters; technically, I guess it’s part of the Hellboy universe, but Hellboy is so far removed from the daily comings and goings of the group that I think in terms of the B.P.R.D. universe with vague connections to the big red guy.
These first fourteen trade paperbacks collect what Mignola has deemed the first long arc of the series, seventy regular issues that more or less chronicle the war against the frog monsters that actually started back in Hellboy #1. To fully appreciate all the elements in this arc you probably also need to read the Hellboy collections Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil and The Conqueror Worm, plus the Lobster Johnson book, The Iron Prometheus, and the first Witchfinder series, collected as In the Service of Angels.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, almost 100 comics all told, but I have to tell you, it’s worth every minute and every cent. The story line develops slowly, takes twists and turns as the characters spend as much energy dealing with each other as they do actually fighting the various menaces that confront them. Characters die, characters leave, characters betray, and some are even unpleasant. Two of the fourteen books, 1946 and 1947, deal with the origins of the bureau in the aftermath of World War 2. They don’t make any direct contribution to the storyline, other than setting up the political and monetary conflicts that continue to the present day.
The first two books, The Hollow Earth and The Soul of Venice, are collections of stand alone tales that refine and tie together the characters and concepts that will drive the rest of the series. Although Mignola oversaw the details, a variety of writers and artists contribute to these stories in varying combinations, almost like they’re trying out for the regular slot. Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for the Lobster Johnson stories, and there is one solo adventure and another that connects Lobster, World War 2 and the B.P.R.D.
Plague of Frogs (book 3) gets the main arc fully underway as Kate, Liz, Abe, Roger and Johan follow up on a giant fungus that has escaped a B.P.R.D. research lab. Guy Davis starts as the regular artist and in his hands, the fungus is one of the creepiest critters I’ve ever seen. A climactic battle reveals that the frogs are back and ready to wreak havoc on the world. It’s a close one, and Abe is apparently killed, but as we view his near death experience, we get our first glimpse into his origin. Mignola obviously knows how to parcel out stories in just the right way, at just the right speed, to keep readers coming back, but this may be his best teaser ever.
Capt. Benjamin Daimo sits up and cuts his way out of a body bag in book 5, The Dead. With half his lower jaw cut away, he’s the epitome of the tough guy marine, and to everyone else’s dismay, he’s put in charge of the B.P.R.D. while Kate is assisting Abe in his search for further information on his origin. Among other things, Daimo is to oversee the Bureau’s move to an abandoned research facility in the Colorado mountains, a large, foreboding structure with dark secrets of its own.
The Dead marks the debut of John Arcudi as regular scripter, and it’s hard to know how much detail in the story is actually his rather than Mignola’s, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The constant switching back and forth between characters and across time seems more effortless than ever. A madman sealed in a lower level of the ‘new’ headquarters since the end of World War 2, fore- shadowings of future adversaries, another of Abe’s visits to his own past are all woven around a tense adventure story. I haven’t done a body count on any of these books, but on a really primal level, Mignola, Arcudi and Davis are very fond of blowing stuff up.
As with other books in the series, The Black Flame contains more plot elements than it’s possible to coherently summarize in a small space. The title character is the anti-Bruce Wayne, a millionaire playboy who develops an alter-ego based on a Nazi original, with the goal of becoming the leader of the frogs. To that end, The Black Flame helps bring about the advent of Kata Hem, a god even creepier than the fungus guy, only to find that he, the Flame, kinda got things wrong. He’s a servant, not a master. Oops.
Roger the homunculus, until now a child-like innocent, has found his mentor and role model in Daimo, adopting a swaggering bad-ass attitude that ultimately gets him ‘killed.’ And in the meantime, Liz has her first full encounter with Memnan Sa, a Fu Manchu-looking character who may or may not be on the side of the angels. All this, by the way, is taking place as the combined armed forces and B.P.R.D. agents are waging full scale war against the swarming frogs and the monstrous, steadily advancing Kata Hem.
The Universal Machine takes a side-trip as Kate and Devon trek to a remote French town in search of a rare book that just might have the secret to restoring Roger to life. It doesn’t go well. Though lacking any of the abilities of the rest of the team, Kate’s knowledge of the occult and quick-thinking turn an ugly situation around, though without the hoped for results. We find out a little more about Johan’s origin, more about Liz’s origin, meet Carl the Wendigo and tie the whole book up with a poignant final meeting between Johan and Roger.
If I have to pick a favorite out of the series, it’s unquestionably book 7, Garden of Souls. I’m only going to say this: a living mummy, Victorain cyborgs and a finale to Abe’s origins. If that doesn’t do it for you, you’re hopeless.
I guess I have to add that Johan gets a body, because the results of that along with a taste of Daimo’s backstory make up the bulk of the narrative in Killing Ground. And the mummy. And the wendigo. And Memnan Sa. And Lobster Johnson.
Books 8 and 13, 1946 and 1947, reveal the beginnings of the bureau under the guidance of Trevot von Bruttenholm in the ruins of post-war Berlin. Both books provide well-earned breaks for Arcudi and Davis.
But you’ll notice the arc has kinda moved away from the frogs over these last few issues. They come roaring back in The Warning, teaming up with the subterranean Hyboreans, introduced in book 1. Memnan Sa is confronted by the bureau in his lair, easily outwits them, and takes Liz for his own purposes. She has, he reveals, a higher calling.
That calling is revealed in The Black Goddess, which is the climactic battle we’ve been waiting for. Even though it will take one more volume to wrap everything up, this is where the majority of the plot lines come together and the big evil confronted.
One would assume War on Frogs, book 12, is another collection of stories with guest artists, mostly filling in gaps in the main character’s lives. It’s a loose group of stories and by this time, I’m gettting imaptient. B.P.R.D. is far from perfect, and this is an obvious time-filler.
King of Fear wraps up the storyline, and despite the promise of a cataclysmic battle, this book is more low-key than one would expect. All the major story arcs are resolved (they have to leave something to drive future issues) and just about every major character that has appeared over this long story reappears: The Black Flame, Lobster Johnson, Hellboy, the Victorian cyborgs. The frogs are apparently stopped.
I have to tell you, these quick summaries (did you notice they got “quicker” as they went along?) don’t begin to do justice to the wealth of character and action and creepy details, don’t even suggest the complexity of the plots and their magnificent interweaving through time. There’s not so much detecting going on as in a normal Occult Detective book, but the mysteries that are there have more to do with the depths of character than figuring out the source of a manifestation. If your only acquaintance with the B.P.R.D. is via the Hellboy movies, you are getting shortchanged. This is one of the best, most consistent comics on the market, far ahead of even the other Mignola occult series, Witchfinder and Baltimore. Do yourself a favor and catch up. Book 15 just came out a month or so ago, starting a whole new arc. A whole new reason for looking brightly into the dark future.