Shadows Over Baker Street, various authors, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, Del Rey, 2003
I like strawberry jam; I like pulp magazines.
Do I really need to spread the jam on the magazine to know that it’s neither going to taste good nor improve either?
Shadows Over Baker Street is an original anthology, with eighteen attempts at having Sherlock Holmes enter ‘the dark nightmare world of H. P. Lovecraft.’ There are some good stories here, though none that successfully pull off the the anthology’s theme.
Before I get into the details, let me confess that I don’t get the idea of forcing Holmes into supernatural settings in general, and Lovecraft’s world in particular. The new Guy Ritchie-Robert Downy Sherlock Holmes features a black magician who comes back from the dead; the game, Sherlock Holmes: the Awakened, squares off the Master Detective with unnamed but recognizable Cthulhu Mythos characters; a new Australian comic, Sherlock Holmes, Dark Detective, speaks for itself. Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), along with its many other deficiencies, added an occult subplot to the climax.
As a one time spoof, the idea might have merit, but a quick check at Amazon reveals that it has become a sub-genre of its own, apparently beginning with Fred Saberhagen’s 1978 novel, The Holmes-Dracula File. Its now joined by novels Sherlock Holmes Vs. Dracula: Or the Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, Sherlock Holmes: The Game’s Afoot, Sherlock Holmes and the Terror Out of Time, Sherlock Holmes in the Adventure of the Ancient Gods, Sherlock Holmes in the Dreaming Detective, Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula, and Saberhagen’s own sequel, Seance for a Vampire; short story collections show a similar lack of imagination: The Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes, The Ghost of Sherlock Holmes : Seventeen Supernatural Stories, Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes, The Irregular Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.
On top of all the five million straight Holmes pastiches, I find that sad. Imagine if all that creative energy had been put into, say, creating an original character that might capture the acclaim that Sherlock did? Sorry. Silly idea. Much better to send Holmes off to Oz or Middle Earth or to meet John Carter of Mars. or, hell, don’t stop there -have the Master Detective team up with Mr. T. Marketing considerations, y’know.
The essence of Sherlock Holmes is reason. The Land of Mist, wherein Doyle converted the similarly rational Prof.Challenger to spiritualism, is far and away the weakest of Doyle’s novels that I’ve read.
The essence of a Lovecraft story, with some exceptions made for the Dunsanian tales, is the collapse of reason.
In spite of all this, don’t think me a purist. In high school I loved Ellery Queen’s A Study in Terror and Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution. Like them or not, they were logical extensions of the character rather than a disavowal.
But the differences between a Doyle Sherlock Holmes story and a Lovecraft story are pretty great and pretty obvious:.
1. They occupy separate worlds with different realities. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, imagine Sherlock being so absorbed in tracking with his magnifying glass that he steps off a cliff…….and continues walking in the air until he realizes what he’s done; then he falls. Works fine if it’s a caricature in a Warner Bros. cartoon; violates the world of Victorian England. That’s extreme, of course, but every creative universe has it’s own rules, whether they are written down or not.
2.Though Doyle and Lovecraft both write stories that reveal as they go along, their pacing is as radically opposed as their philosophies. HPL’s stories are as much about atmosphere and mood as about plot, and they develop slowly. Doyle’s stories move at a brisk pace, centered on character and action.
3. No one can confuse Doyle’s authorial voice with Lovecraft’s, and to a great degree, their voices are essential to their appeal. Lovecraft pastiches ( at least as I define the term – I’ll save my rant about pastiches in general for another time) succeed in inverse proportion to how hard the author tries to mimic Lovecraft’s style. It’s amazing how silly words like ‘eldritch’ and ‘cyclopean’ can seem when used by a lesser hand.
4. Finally, there is the baggage that each author carries in the form of their fans. Just dropping the name Cthulhu doesn’t make a story “Lovecraftian” anymore than exclaiming “The game’s afoot!” makes a story Sherlockian. There are expectations.
So, no matter how you decide to meld these two worlds, you’re going to have to address these issues. And you better be clever about it.
Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” kicks the collection off. It’s the most successful story, largely, I think, because he takes the assignment too seriously to take it too seriously. With an obvious twinkle in his eye, Gaiman creates an alternate Victorian London where the Old Ones have long ago returned and established themselves as the royalty of Europe. A handful of Sherlockian stock elements are sprinkled about, yet each twisted slightly to conform to this new world. Though he keeps the narrator device common to both Doyle and Lovecraft, Gaiman makes no attempt to duplicate either style. It’s his own world, and he makes the rules. And follows them.
Elizabeth Bear’s “Tiger! Tiger!”takes the easy way out and omits Holmes entirely, bringing Irene Adler in as a member of a tiger hunting trip in India. A guest appearance by Col. Moran also fails to provide any flavor of Holmes’s world; there’s even less of Lovecraft. Change the names and alter the few unnecessary Mythos references and you’ll have a decent weird tale that stands on its own, but as is, it’s far off the presumed mark. Same thing applies to James Lowder’s “The Weeping Masks,” the story behind the wound Watson received in Afghanistan before meeting Holmes. It has more of Kipling than either of the inspiration sources, but it’s one of the better stories in the book..
Co-editor Michael Reaves takes a more conventional route in “The Adventure of The Arab’s Manuscript.” setting his narrative firmly in Holmes’s world, constructing his story in Doyle’s manner, but having the mystery resolve around a Lovecraftian theme. It’s an enjoyable read, though Holmes is conveniently knowledgeable about the Necornomicon, and he accepts that knowledge quite easily given his compulsively rational brain. I would think he, rather than Watson, would be the one trying to explain it away, or else collapse at the undermining of his very core belief.
“The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle” by Paul Finch, takes the same approach and gets off to a solid start, but the melodramatic ending, complete with the villain ‘monologuing’ about his master plan, belongs in a different anthology altogether.
The rest of the stories, some very well written, others clumsy, fail to engage. It’s hard to know who gets the worst of it in the end. Holmes is largely unrecognizable; most of the Lovecraftian touches fall flat and truly cosmic horror is completely absent. Guest stars like H. G.Wells, Dr. Nikola and Carnacki parade through, more distracting than entertaining; adding hints of Stoker and Machen also fail to bring the original mixture to a boil, though Holmes in Machen’s world might have been a better concept. But, alas, Machen’s name does not sell books.
Marketing. Branding. The Same Only Different.
Can Sherlock Holmes in Oz be far off?
Ok, we’re back! Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a great holiday.
The holidays were crazier than usual, with both my lovely wife and I having colds for most of the week. I got my first xBox for Christmas and am learning to play with Capt. America, but want to start Bioshock later this next week. I hear that’s an oldie but goodie. And I started Stephen King’s new book.
I have to start back to school on my MFA sooner than I had planned. They messed up my course planning so that if i didn’t take a course in January I’d lose my financial aid. I had already enrolled for February, but had to scramble to find a class that fit my degree program for Jan. 9. The only class that fit was Comparative Literature, a class I really do not want to take. We’ll be reading Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary and a proto-feminist novel I’ve never heard of, The Awakening. I’m not saying they aren’t great books, but they are not my cup of tea. I’ve done battle with Dostoevsky before and walked away from the fight, and I can’t tell you how unthrilled I am by the thematic concepts of the other two. Classics-shmlassics. I like Twain, Dickens, Wharton, Steinbeck, Eliot, Austen, and am bored stiff by James, Faulkner, Trollope and…well, you get my point. I’m not a snob, but there are so many other books that interest me so much more, I hate to waste this time. whine whine whine. This too shall pass.
I plan to do some more advertising starting next week. Please spread the word, vote for LIM at Top Web Comics…and be here next Friday for page number next.
Have a good weekend.
The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, by John R. King, Forge, 2008
Save your money.
Can I be any more direct? You want details, I’ll give you details, but they will all come back to the same thing.
Save. Your. Money.
Carnacki meets Sherlock Holmes? Had to have it, and I meant right this minute. I kept my calendar clear so that as soon as I pulled it out of the box, I started reading. I had no idea what to expect, I’d never heard of the author. My excitement was dashed on the very first page, with Carnacki’s ‘negotiation’ with a rat over a piece of cheese. It’s Switzerland, 1891, and Carnacki is young and on the tramp. Further reading will confirm what I suspected almost immediately: the characters in this book will bear no resemblance whatsoever to their famous namesakes. The book might even go down better if someone would do a find/change function and make up original names.
Carnacki’s heart is on the tramp as well, and a beautiful young woman catches his eye. He pursues, with a pick-up technique that possibly explains why he was a bachelor in later life. But Anna Schmidt responds, and together they set off for a picnic at nearbyReichenbach Falls, arriving just in time to see…
Anna pointed, her eyes narrowing. “Don’t you see that motion, up there beside the falls? Something big.”
I squinted and put a hand visorlike above my eyes, but still could make nothing out. “Probably a stag. They’ve got their winter velvet now and—”
“It’s not a stag! It’s…a man. No, two men – and they’re…they’re fighting!”
The most exciting element in the book, and Carnacki sees nothing, though the argument continues on for the rest of the page, until Anna sees one of the men fall. Carnacki is still not sure. But Anna is on the move, and soon they are fishing a body out of the swollen river downstream from the falls. Carnacki stares into “eyes more brilliant than any I had ever seen,” but the man cannot remember who he is. Now we know from the Jacket that Sherlock Holmes is in the story; two men fighting at the top of Reichenbach Falls implies that the second man is Moriarty. But the only clue we are given as to which one this fellow might be is that the other is Anna Schmidt’s father.
King expends laborious effort to keep from identifying either of the two men for the first half or so of the book, effort that implies a twist of some sort in the offing. Nope. When Anna finally ‘reveals’ that Moriarty is her father, at the end of a chapter, the effect is not surprise but relief that we won’t have to dance around the names anymore.
From a letter that prefaces the book, from Carnacki to Dr. Watson, the ‘document’ which comprises this book is Carnacki’s own telling of this story. Inexplicably, the second chapter is in the mind of amnesiac Holmes; later chapters shift between the two and the third person, until Moriarty’s diary picks up the narrative midway through the book. Very literary, I suppose, but a poor substitute for characterization and storytelling.
Since credibility isn’t an issue here, it’s no surprise to find that Moriarty married a prostitute whose genius for mathermatics exceeded even his own. After years of research, she perfected a mathematical formula for predicting people’s individual behavior. When she’s killed by the crazed son of a mob-boss –must’ve missed a variable somewhere– Moriarty uses her formula to try and root out the criminal element in London.
He has a daughter. He’s a good and loving if awkward father. Life swims along tediously but well.
So let’s trot out Jack the Ripper. Why not? Only, see, he’s just a sailor with a demon inside him! Moriarty, like any dad, takes Anna along in an attempt to catch the murderer. When Moriarty, old math professor that he is, kills the host, what does the demon do? Well, there ain’t nobody else here…(We’re later told, by the demon, that he is the Shadow of Reichenbach Falls; I have no clue as to why.)
Moriarty now uses the math formula to take over the Underworld and become the Napoleon of Crime. He and Anna are estranged.
Seriously, it goes downhill from there. Watson makes an appearance; Holmes is held captive in a lunatic asylum where a mad scientist uses a device that is supposed to be an ancestor of Carnacki’s later Electric Pentacle, though physically it bears no resemblance; Carnacki and Anna fall in love; followed by more non-twists interspersed with non-tension, and action that was ludicrous in the 1930s. Carnacki attempts to slip inside the asylum and hides in the crematorium. Oh, there’s a good idea. Will he escape?!!!!
Spewing all this venom wears me out, so I’ll wrap this up. It’s not so much the money wasted , but the time. Whenever you start a book, there’s always a chance you won’t like it, that’s a given, but even disliking a book doesn’t mean you didn’t get something out of it. The blurb at Amazon says that Mr. King is a popular fantasy novelist but whatever skill he may display in the world of Magic: The Gathering is not apparent here.
I once heard great storytelling described as “leading the reader along with the promise of a thick ,juicy hamburger, then giving them a delicious slice of pizza in such a way that they say, ‘Ah! That’s what I really wanted all along.” Goofy yet pithy analogy. King leads us along with the promise, but in the end only delivers a Lunchable. That’s not what I wanted all along.
Save your money.
I’ve never really been sure why the day after the day we have designated the last one of the previous year is anything different from any other day after the day, but I get sucked up into the celebration as much as anyone. So Happy 2012 to all of you.
Lovecraft is Missing returns this Friday, Jan.6, as scheduled, so be sure to start watching your RSS feeds and mark the calendar. Tell your friends, spread the word, as I would really like to enlarge the readership this year , to both share the joy and to possibly find a way to publish the comic at a reasonable price. Not that failure to do so is going to stop me. At worst, when the story ends sometime late in 2013, I will make it available as .pdf downloads as I begin my new comic.
The reprints of the Occult Detective series will continue, but I am working on new blog posts as well, extending that series and looking into new topics like Lovecraftian art.
Have a great week and don’t forget to check in Friday as our story resumes.
The Occult Files of Francis Chard:Some Ghost Stories by A.M. Burrage, Ash-Tree Press,1996
Of all the occult detective books on my reading shelf, I’ve most been looking forward to this volume.Though I’ve never read any of his other stories, Burrage is a highly regarded author of ghost stories; this volume is the second of a four volume collection of his complete stories. There are no other editions of these stories in print as far as I know, and this one, long out of print itself, lists at $250 and up on ABE. Plus, there are TWO occult detectives, the Chard series and two stories from an aborted series featuring Derek Scarpe. How could it not be a great read?
Well, easily enough that I don’t know where to begin. It’s not that the stories are badly written; Burrage is an engaging, pleasant writer, far superior to someone like Sax Rohmer. I wasn’t never bored reading these. Francis Chard is believable, knowledgeable without being arrogant, curious without being reckless, compassionate without being sentimental. But, even for the year 1927, when these stories first appeared, he is just so….tame. And worse, considering his profession, largely ineffectual.
The stories are maddeningly short, only one being longer than nine pages. There is simply no time to build any sense of the otherworldly, even if the author attempted to, which Burrage doesn’t. He is the anti-Blackwood in this respect. The remote and ancient houses are suitably musty and crumbling, but with an ambiance more suited to an Agatha Christie mystery than a weird tale.
The first story, “The Affair at Penbillo, ” is the longest of the series, and starts off promisingly. A lonely bachelor, in a remote part of Cornwall, seeking to communicate with the spirit of his dear, dead sister, performed a ritual he obtained from a ‘certain woman’, in his village, a white witch. Chard is familiar with the procedure, consisting of, among other things, opening every door and window in the house and reciting “Woman come back to me.” Something very different responds, driving the man to seek Chard’s help.
So far so good, and the confrontation with the ‘bad’ spirit is the second best thing in the entire series. But confrontation is really too strong a word. Chard and his amanuensis, Torrance, come face to face with the misshapen figure, splash some holy water on it, and then the story suddenly shifts back to Chard’s drawing room, where he explains the reason for the haunting and suggests that an exorcism is the only likely cure…and we’re done.
If you can’t guess the source of the manifestation in “The Pit in the Garden” then you’re not paying attention. And again, there is a brief meeting with the ghost, which is this time dispersed by having a candlestick thrown at it, and the ultimate solution provided inadvertently by the client. “The Woman with Three Eyes” -evocative title — is about an annoying but harmless pair of ghosts, one of whom is doomed forever to try and redeem a shady business deal. Chard sends a priest friend down to see what can be done. “The Third Visitation” refers to a family curse: when the head of the Selchester clan sees a certain ghost three times, he always commits suicide. The solution is non-supernatural and preposterous, interesting only to observe a capable writer dealing with an incident that a pulp hack would have been reluctant to use.
“The Girl in Blue” is Chard’s wistful telling of his own first encounter with a ghost. It is mild by any standard. “The Bungalow at Shammerton” finds Chard at his most ineffectual. Besides noting some unpleasant smells, he has no part in the story other than to hear the tale leading up to the haunting. There the story just ends. Tough luck, old chap, sorry you can’t use your bungalow. Bye now. (But I do have to share with you the name of the bungalow: Munki Puz, after a “a monkey puzzle which grew on the miniature lawn in front.” Apparently, a monkey puzzle is something that average readers of the day would know about; me, I haven’t a clue.)
It’[s downhill from here. “The Protector” is about a benign ghost at a a boy’s school. Again, Chard is more an audience than a protagonist. “The Soldier” is not only predictable, Chard notes that there is nothing to be done and leaves an elderly couple to probable suicide, noting that “It might be dangerous to interfere. We’ve got to pay for our sins-in some way or another, you know.” “The Hiding Hole”, even at seven pages, seems endless, as the ending is telegraphed from the very beginning of the story.
“The Tryst” has some of the flavor of a Carnacki story. A notorious and ‘celebrated beauty’ has been visited by the ghost of a jilted lover, who has promised to take her away at a certain time on Saturday night. Burrage is at his best in his fascinating if sexist description of the woman:
“She’s a strange creature, Torrance. Temperament without any genius, essentially common, beautiful in a certain cheap and showy way, and with a certain sex appeal. Quite conscienceless and terribly ignorant, of course. She doesn’t believe in God, but she believes in mascots.”
He has agreed to come and sit with her on the appointed evening, but admits to reliable old Torrance, “Of course, we can’t really do anything except give her comfort and confidence, and it would be uncharitable to say the least, to withhold those.” Well, thanks a whole helluva lot, Mr.Chard. The climax does, however, actually approach the level of tension one craves from a story like this, and though brief , ends the series on a relative high note.
There are only two Derek Scarpe stories, dating from 1920, presented together here under the umbrella of The Man Who Made Haunted Houses His Hobby. As the weekly London fiction magazines usually bought such series in groups of six, editor Jack Adrian surmises that Burrage had a row with the editor/publisher that prevented completion of the series. I’d go further and propose that such a row was over said publisher/editor wanting his money back, appalled at having read the first two submissions and found them not quite approaching mediocrity.
I’m not going to waste time on the details of the stories. I submit instead this conversation between Scarpe and his client from “The Severed Head”, right after the client has related an ancient and tragic family story:
“One more question, if you please, before we close the subject for the time being. This butler, who is staying on with you is new, you say. How long have you had him?”
“Not much more than a month. He arrived almost at the same time that the manifestations began.”
Is there any reason to read further?
Much of the rest of this volume is made up of non-series ghost stories, and in fairness, I read a few. They are likewise tame, but with subtle twists here and there to raise them above the ordinary. Why then, are the Chard stories so lackluster? By 1927, occult detectives were common, and the archetypes and tropes well established; Burrage can’t claim that he was tilling new soil. All in all, the Occult Files of Francis Chard represent either a failure of imagination or a personality too timid for this kind of fiction.
The Undying Monster (A Tale of the Fifth Dimension) by Jesse Douglas Kerruish, Ash-Tree Press, 2006
The Undying Monster, originally published in 1922 in London by Heath Cranton Publishers, stands apart from the other occult detective stories I’ve been reading in several ways: It is a stand alone novel rather than a series of short stories; the occult detective, Luna Bartendale, is a woman; and the history of the book’s publication. detailed in a long introduction by weird fiction researcher and endless fount of knowledge Jack Adrian, is almost more interesting than the story itself.
The tale was probably more gripping in 1922. In the long years since, the plot’s gimmick has been worked to death and is readily apparent by the second page of the novel, destroying any tension for the contemporary reader. It’s well enough written to carry on to the end, but hard to get involved with everyone waltzing around what is so obvious. And call me a nut, but the name of one of the principal characters, Swanhild Hammond, tripped me up every time it appeared.
Still and all, the story gets off like a shot and there’s little time to dawdle along the way. There’s lots of action, legendry, hidden rooms, mysterious burial mounds, a great chalk figure known as the Monstrous Man, hints at vampirism and lycanthropy right up to the conclusion. Kerruish is at her best in evoking the sense of great time and mystery that we who have never lived in England assume to be endemic to every weald and down and by-way.
Luna Bartendale, the heroine and occult detective called in to solve the case, prefers the title of “Supersensitive.” She makes a memorable first appearance:
The stray curls that glinted amidst the swathings of a motor veil were of that fine pale golden tint that so rarely survives childhood, and her features were so delicate that only the eyebrows much darker than her hair and the pronounced cheekbones and high bridged nose saved the ensemble from dollishness. Her skin was creamy, touched with pink on either cheek and with a sharp-cut splash of red at the lips, her daintily rounded chin had a deep dimple in it, and she kept her lids habitually drooped so that her eyes flickered darkly behind a screen of golden lashes.
Of course, she is familiar in advance with the mystery that Swanhild (trip) brings to her, the Hammand family curse, known in all the popular ghost books as The Undying Monster. The mystery has defied solution by specialists as diverse as Madame Blavatsky and Sir William Crookes . The curse is set down in ancient rhyme, engraved in runic letters on a crumbling stone:
Where grow pines and firs amain,
Under stars, sans heat or rain,
chief of Hammand, ‘ware thy bane.
Bartendale, unlike other occult detectives, actually does a lot of detective work . She’s knowledgeable enough within narrow limits, but must resort to experts for translations and historical details; she leads an archaeological dig at the burial mound in pursuit of clues; she builds her case carefully, refusing to speculate along the way, even as she begins to understand the true horror lying at the root of the curse. Her emotional involvement with Swanhild’s (trip) brother, Oliver, last of the Hammand line and bearer/victim of the curse, threatens to undo everything, including destroy her supersensitive powers. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel, that of love being anathema to psychic powers. It isn’t explored as fully as it could be, but it gives some hint of how original this work must have seemed in 1922.
As for her supersensitive ability:
….the sense of the harmony in life…..All people have this instinctive sense so long as they keep themselves decent, but in some it amounts to a gift; like an eye for color or and ear for music; and it can be cultivated like other gifts.
An element of John Silence’s purity of soul creeps in, but Kerruish handles it less clumsily than Blackwood, and though it helps date the story, it doesn’t detract from it.
Bartendale is also quite clear that anything that occurs outside the laws of nature is Fourth Dimensional, her word for the supernatural. But the focus of her study is the dimension that “surrounds and pervades the Fourth,as the Fourth surrounds the Third,” a dimension known rather disappointingly as the Fifth Dimension. It is late in the book when this is revealed to be the dimension of the mind, and it is here that the origins of the curse dwell.
Kerruish, via Bartendale, constructs an elaborate origin for the monster, a werewolf , that calls to mind Algernon Blackwood’s explanation in the John Silence story, The Camp of the Dog, as well as the movies, Werewolf of London and Curse of the Werewolf (which was based on a 1933 novel called, confusingly, The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore.) In other words, you don’t become a werewolf because you were bit by one, but because of emotional turmoil. It’s really a more interesting notion.
Luna Bartendale is ultimately successful, though I have to suppose she never had further adventures because she finally admits her love for Oliver and marries him. It’s a shame, as she is more interesting as a character than any of the other occult detectives we’ve looked at thus far. Maybe that’s a hint for some enterprising writer yearning to try their hand at pastiche.
Now to the story behind the story.
As early as 1907, Ms. Kerruish was working steadily as a writer, contributing short stories and longer works to a popular story paper, The Weekly Tale-Teller. Her skill in narrating stories set in North Africa and what was then called Arabia led Adrian to originally assume she had spent some time in those areas during her youth, a notion that turned out not to be true. In fact, she travelled little, and was increasingly beset by various health difficulties in her later years, including deafness and blindness. Of interest to most of us, though, is that she was also a deft hand with the occasional weird tale.
Her first two books, The Raksha Rajah(1912) and Tales and Legends of the Isle of Man (1913) were story collections. In 1917 she won first prize with her first novel in the “1,000 Guinea Prize Novel Competition,” promoted by publishres Hodder & Stoughton. Mr. Adrian did the math, and that came to roughly the equivalent of 20,000 today, at a time when the average annual income in Great Britain was 140. On top of which, the novel, Miss Haroun al-Raschid, was enough of a success that the company also published her second, The Girl from Kuridstan (1918.)
Then she wrote The Undying Monster, and her promising career took a stumble from which it never fully recovered. Apparently Hodder & Stoughton, as well as other “reputable” houses wouldn’t touch a supernatural novel. She shopped it around, until it landed Heath Cranton, a publisher that largely made its money from vanity publishing, though they did some legitimate work as well. There’s no reason to think that the successful authoress paid for her book, but there’s no evidence one way or the other.
In any event, the book was initially successful, going through three printings, receiving favorable reviews, getting picked up for the American market by Methuen, as well as being optioned by 20th Century Fox. So what happened?
Mr. Adrian surmises that Heath Cranton was not capable of dealing with a best-seller, and had no system in place for the ever cheaper (and popular) reprints that would keep a book alive in the public eye. Methuen did not publish the book until 1936; 20th Century Fox didn’t make the movie until 1942, and then only as a programmer. It was released in Britain with the understated-to-a-fault title of The Hammond Mystery.
Kerruish’s output declined after this, apparently due to her ill health, but possibly also because of disappointment in the fate of The Undying Monster. Her last book, a collection of her early short stories, appeared in 1934. She died in 1949. A few of her other books were reprinted along the way, but The Undying Monster was forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Since then it has been recognized as an influential classic of the genre.
The Complete John Silence Stories by Algernon Blackwood, edited by S.T. Joshi. (Dover Publications, 1997)
Algernon Blackwood is one of the titans of weird fiction, so much so that if you’ve never read his work, you need to go to www.horrormasters.com or www.gutenberg.org or even, as archaic as it may seem, your local library right now and make up for lost time. HPL rated The Willows as the greatest weird tale of all time (followed closely by Arthur Machen’s The White People), and The Wendigo is a staple of classic horror anthologies. The Listener is a chilling ghost story, Sand a weird adventure in the deserts of Egypt. Even in his weakest tales, Blackwood’s sheer style is worth the time spent, and, fortunately, most of his work is readily available in inexpensive trade paperbacks. But his initial fame, and the monetary success that allowed him to continue as a full-time author, came with John Silence, Physician Extraordinare (1908),
That said, the John Silence stories -six in all- present the exact opposite situation of that posed by Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, the Dream Detective. Klaw is an intriguing character flailing about in mediocre plots and inferior prose. The problem with the John Silence stories is, I’m afraid, John Silence. He is largely a passive observer in most of the otherwise excellent stories, and that is all to the good. Blackwood is so deft at creating an atmosphere of the weird and otherworldly that the stories seem as real as dreams. But then John Silence comes striding in, a paragon of such virtue and purity that he puts the stock Victorian hero to shame, almost as if Blackwood had a hack co-author who was relegated to just the parts where Silence has to poke his nose into things.
We can quickly put to rest the idea that he is any kind of detective. His knowledge of the occult is so far reaching, I’m surprised he hasn’t already departed for the next higher plane. No surprises for John silence, whether it be a fire elemental guarding an Egyptian mummy, a sexually instigated case of lycanthropy, or the ghosts of devil-worshipping monks.
In the first story, A Psychical Invasion, a humor writer has lost his knack for jocularity because he has unwisely moved into a haunted house. Silence sits and listens as the now despairing writer relates his tale, and up to that point, we have a reasonably good ghost story. When Silence sends the man away and prepares to deal with the ghost head-on, there is the expectation of some Carnacki-like action. Instead….well, let the author speak for himself:
And John Silence, the soul with the good, unselfish motive, held his own against the dark discarnate woman whose motive was pure evil, and whose soul was on the side of the Dark Powers…..
He was conscious, of course, of effort, and yet it seemed no superhuman one, for he had recognized the character of his opponent’s power, and he called upon the good within him to meet and overcome it…He began to breathe deeply and regularly, and at the same time to absorb into himself the forces opposed to him and to turn them to his own account.
Ancient Sorceries is the best tale in the collection, and is frequently anthologized. Again, the victim relates the majority of the story, this time a traveler who impulsively stopped in a remote European village and came under the spell of a witch-cult. So far, so good. Silence only appears in a short section at the end, to add some exposition that is almost totally unnecessary.
Silence takes center stage in The Nemesis of Fire, as he and his assistant travel to help a retired army colonel who has inherited a house that is apparently haunted. The onlu clue seems to be a sense of intense heat. Of course, Silence tips to the answer almost immediately, but instead of sharing, he taunts his assistant with insufferable questions, such as “And you get no clue from these facts?” Considering the answer is a fire elemental (whose source is a stolen Egyptian mummy buried in a hidden tomb on the grounds) haunting the local woods, I guess I’m as big a dolt as Hubbard, the assistant. Imagine, not being able to deduce such a simple thing as that!
Chasing the elemental through the woods, Silence reveals another of his profound techniques for combating the supernatural:
“And , for your safety,” he said earnestly,”imagine now – and for that matter, imagine always until we leave this place – imagine with the utmost keenness, that you are surrounded by a shell that protects you. Picture yourself inside a protective envelope, and build it up with the most intense imagination you can evoke. Pour the whole force of your thought and will into it. Believe vividly all through this adventure that such a shell, constructed of your thought, will and imagination, surrounds you completely and that nothing can pierce it to attack.”
Great. Ghost-breaking with Norman Vincent Peale.
Secret Worship starts off as an atmospheric tale of some promise before descending into silliness. Harris, a German traveler, makes Silence’s acquaintance at supper in a hotel in the high forests of Germany. Excusing himself, Harris sets off on a walk, determined to revisit the remote monastery school where he had spent his youth. He recalls the strict discipline nostalgically, though it had seemed so burdensome then.
At the door, he is welcomed by a brother of the order. Things go badly rather fast. The monks are actually devil-worshippers; in fact, they are the same monks that were at the school when he was boy, or at least their spirits. They’ve lured him to the school to be a sacrifice to their deity. The ritual begins, the devil is in the act of materializing, and Harris is on the verge of giving up his soul as lost:
It was in this awful moment, when he had given up all hope, and the help of gods or men seemed beyond question, that a strange thing happened. For before his fading and terrified vision there slid, as in a dream of light,–yet without apparent rhyme or reasonΓÇöwholly unbidden and unexplained, — the face of that other man at the supper table of the railway inn. And the sight, even mentally, of that strong, wholesome, vigorous English face, inspired him suddenly with a new courage.
The Camp of the Dog is almost a warm-up for The Willows. Hubbard and four others, a clergyman/teacher, his wife and daughter, and a shy student, Sangre, who has repressed his feelings for the daughter, go camping on a Swiss Island. Silence will be along later,”unless you should send for me sooner.”
Blackwood is at his best when creating otherworldly environments out of remote, ordinary places.The tension in the camp builds slowly, the bracing atmosphere of the great outdoors turns close and oppressive, and the campers, particularly the daughter, are menaced by a fleetingly glimpsed black ‘dog’. The reader will be well ahead of the dull Hubbard in figuring out the source of the mystery. I know I wanted to leap in and reveal the secret, just to keep Hubbard from wiring the irritating physician extraordinaire.
Inevitably, Silence is sent for and turns up in time to explain all to his spiritually deficient friends. And quite an explanation it is:
“In all savage races it has been recognized and dreaded, this phenomenon styled ‘Wehr Wolf’ but today it is rare. And it is becoming rare still, for the world grows tame and civilized, emotions have become refined, desires lukewarm, and few men have savagery enough left in them to generate impulses of such intense force, and certainly not to project them into animal form.”
It’s an unusual theory on lycanthropy, at least to me, though it may have been current in the early part of the 20th century (a similar idea is expressed in The Undying Monster, which will be reviewed in Occult Detectives, Pt. 6 a few weeks from now.)
But for once, Silence does not have the last word:
“By Gad!” exclaimed the clergyman breathlessly, and with increasing excitement,”then I feel I must tell you what has been given to me in confidence, that Sangre has in him an admixture of savage bloodΓ, of Red Indian ancestry—”
The final story, A Victim of Higher Space, was not included in the original collection, possibly because it is so out of keeping with the previous tales. It’s almost comic, a gentle fantasy that reminds me of Will Eisners Spirit story about the day Gerhard Schnobble flew. Mr. Mudge is a kind of early-day Flat Stanley. In the course of his arcane studies, he has slipped into the fourth dimension, which causes him to appear in this world as cut-out figure. Of course, Silence has dealt with all the scientific and philosophical issues attending to the situation years before, and his advice, again, is essentially to think good thoughts and avoid brass bands
Carnacki, where are you when we need you?
The Experiences of Flaxman Low by Kate and Hesketh Prichard, Ash Tree Press, 2003
Flaxman Low is, more or less, the first Occult Detective. He was technically preceded by Stoker′s Van Helsing in Dracula, and Le Fanu′s Dr. Martin Hesselius, though the latter was generally only peripherally involved in stories he narrated. So maybe we should say Low is the first Occult Detective to appear in serial form in magazines. The twelve stories appeared in two groups of six, the first in Pearson′s Magazine from January to June, 1898, the second in the same magazine in January to June, 1899. The stories were credited to E. and H. Heron, which was a pseudonym for the mother and son writing team of Kate and Hesketh Prichard. Their real names appeared on the book collection, Ghosts: Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low, in 1899.
To be honest, I wasn′t expecting much from these stories, but I am happy to say that my prejudice was thoroughly upended. The stories as a whole are uneven, but the ghosts and spirits Low confronts are by and large refreshingly original, even by today′s standards, including a bladder (seriously!), a long-limbed earth elemental, a vampire-mummy, a possessed plant, and my personal favorite, a ghost that can′t be seen but who expands to crowd people out of the room. There are some truly creepy moments, such as this passage from ″The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith″ (which I′ve slightly edited for length). Low is sleeping in the haunted room when….
…he was awakened by feeling a heavy weight upon his feet, something that seemed inert and motionless. He recollected that he had left the gas burning, but the room was now in darkness.
Next he was aware that the thing on the bed had slowly shifted, and was gradually traveling up towards his chest. The sensation he experienced as it moved was of some ponderous, pulpy body, not crawling or creeping, but spreading! He tried to move his lower limbs but could not because of the deadening weight. A feeling of drowsiness began to overpower him and a deadly cold, such as he said he had felt before at sea when in the neighborhood of icebergs, chilled the air.
With a violent struggle he managed to free his arms, but the thing grew more irresistible as it spread upwards. Then he became conscious of a pair of glassy eyes, with livid, everted lids. It dawned upon him that he was about to be suffocated, for, by the same method of extension, the thing was now coming over his face. It felt cold and clammy, like a mass of mucilage or a monstrous snail.
There is very little detecting going on in the first several stories. Low is mostly a passive observer of phenomena, for which he then offers an occult explanation to tie things up. But by the end of the first series, the authors have hit their stride and the middle stories are engaging, even those two that turn out to have, in the best tradition of keeping the reader guessing, rational explanations. One of these latter, ″The Story of Konnor Old House″ faintly foreshadows Hodgson′s classic ″The Voice in the Night″ (1907).
Unfortunately, the authors either ran out of steam or were burdened by editorial edict, for the last two stories take a nosedive and are the weakest of the lot. Both attempt to establish an arch-nemesis for Low in the person of Dr. Kalmarkane, a hairy giant of a man, far advanced in his study of esoteric knowledge. It seems that Moriarty was the evil mastermind behind this particular evil as well, even if only editorially. Low appears only as bookends to the first story, which involves a young doctor who assists Dr. Kalmarkane in his diabolical experiments, one of which is psychic manipulation of a severed, withered arm. The second story is even more unsatisfying. After being threatened by Kalmarkane and subjected to a series of psychic assaults, Low takes a gun, goes to the mad doctor′s house and gives the man the option of being shot point blank or taking the chance “to even up our differences as men.” They retire to a remote part of the coast of Calais, and thus the conflict between two masters of the occult is settled with a pistol duel!
Low‛s character, as is common in most popular fiction, even today, is fairly bland. He is of course of superior intelligence, athletic, resolute, so on and etc. The most distinguishing description given of him is that he resembles a bust of Isis that sits in his apartment. His passivity allows for some very questionable, often even callous, decisions. In “Konnor Old House”, he lets a man go to spend a night alone in the deserted mansion, even after the description of the horrible deaths that have occurred there. He then sits up all night in a nearby house, puffing comfortably on his pipe, waiting to see what will happen. The young man barely escapes with his life.
Still, it remains that Flaxman Low is the prototype of what is to follow, so we must allow for some imperfections. He‛s a worthy ancestor to all that follow.
Well, as I said, this is the last new strip for 2011. I’m still plugging away and I think the time out has been to everyone’s benefit – I’m less stressed, you’ll get a better story. I have already uploaded the first strips, to start Friday, January 6, 2012. Don’t forget about me over the holidays. Father Jackey is going to need your attention.
The Walking Dead aired it’s mid-season finale last Sunday. The ending would have been a shocker if it had happened in, say, episode 4 or 5. But by this time, if you didn’t see it coming, then you weren’t paying attention. I hope they pick up the pace in the second half of the season, which starts in February. The cast is strong and the set-up is interesting, focusing more on what day to do survival in a zombie apocalypse would do to already strained relationships than how to kill the undead. Mostly it’s been very credible, though Shane’s little outburst last week seemed a bit over the top. But hey, I’ll be there when the show airs again.
As a change of pace, I’m re-reading a philosophy book, Conquest of Abundance, by the late Paul Feyerabend. It was left unfinished at his death, but contains his musings on how we mute the abundance of reality with stereotypes and ritual. Reality–now that’s some scary stuff. I’ll be glad to get back the safe confines of Arkham in the new year.
Have a great holiday season. Merry Christmas to all of those who celebrate such, and merry-your-own-particular holiday if you don’t. Merry is the key word here, I think. See you Friday, January 6, 2012.
The Dream Detective by Sax Rohmer, London: Jarrolds, 1920; New York: Doubleday, 1925.
Moris Klaw is an anomaly, at least among Occult Detectives: a truly memorable character in want of a worthy narrative. Though drawn with broad strokes, Klaw is eccentric and temperamental; his unusual speech pattern indicates a foreign but unspecified nationality (though he has an affinity for Paris, there is nothing conclusive); his high forehead, straggly hair, wispy beard, and yellowish skin, all set off by a pince nez are a far cry from the lantern jawed heroes of the day. He’s a large man who tends to shuffle “ungainly” and usually makes his appearance in a black cape coat, with a flat top bowler hat from inside of which he frequently retrieves a spray bottle of verbena to mist across his brow for refreshment. He has a beautiful daughter, Isis, as his assistant. (No mention is ever made of Mrs. Klaw.) And he operates out of a shabby curio shop in London‛s East End, where a parrot alerts him to visitors with the call, “Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you.”
His particular technique for solving crimes, not always employed, is to sleep at the scene of the crime, allowing the ‛odic forces‛ to imprint themselves on his mind like light on a photographic plate. This mental photograph relates to the thoughts present in the criminals mind at the moment when he (or she) is most focused on the commission of the crime.
Unfortunately, the crimes he is given to solve would have to rise several notches in quality to approach the mundane. It‛s enough to push the otherwise intriguing Mr. Klaw to the outer edges of the Occult Detective circle (or pentacle, if you prefer.) Frustratingly, in the last of the ten stories, the narrator indicates that Klaw has dealt with occult/supernatural cases, but “I have refrained from including them because readers of this paper would be unlikely to appreciate the nature of Klaw’s investigations outside the sphere of ordinary natural laws.”
Sax Rohmer, the pen name of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, was of course the creator of Fu Manchu, that politically incorrect archetype of the Yellow Peril, as well as author of numerous other mysteries with occult and oriental themes. Ward was an ardent occultist who rubbed elbows with fellow authors like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He wrote a nonfiction book on occultism, The Romance of Sorcery, which Lovecraft had read, though what influence it might have had is unknown to me.
I haven‛t read a Fu Manchu novel in over thirty years, but judging by The Dream Detective series, Ward was a mediocre storyteller with a slight gift for character (though in DD all but Klaw are cardboard at best) and atmosphere. The ten stories, which originally appeared in the New Magazine over the course of 1913, all have what I suppose you could call rational solutions in that, with one equivical exception, none are supernatural. But their credibility ranges from strained to unsustainable. In the “Case of the Ivory Statue”, a life sized marble statue apparently vanishes while the sculptor‛s back is turned, literally in a matter of seconds. The solution (should I say spoiler alert?): the statue was stolen hours before, and the live model who posed for the work sat in the pose unnoticed until she could make her getaway. And the purpose of the theft was to obtain a jewel-encrusted antique girdle that had been firmly affixed to the statue, and required time to remove. Aside from the fact that the criminal had to presumably make a reasonable duplicate of the girdle for the model, anyone who has ever tried to lift a life-sized piece of marble would know that you don‛t just trot into a studio and haul it to a waiting cab by yourself, as Rohmer has him do.
In the “Case of the Blue Rajah”, the famous diamond is stolen out from under the noses of eight reputable businessmen in a locked room. The solution is so telegraphed, not to mention simplistic, that it diminishes Klaw by making him seem only normal in a crowd of dunces. The thief turns out to be the Hindu who was selling the jewel for the Gaekwar of Nizam (is there such a thing as a Gaekwar?). His accomplice was a young English lady whom he had promised to marry, which leads to this jaw-dropping assertion:
“He had only been in London six months,” Moris Klaw rumbled in my ear, “and you see, she adored him — helped him to steal. It is wonderful, snakelike, the power of fascination some Hindus have over women – and always over blondes, Mr. Searles, always blondes. It is a psychological problem.”
“The Case of the Veil of Isis” -not Klaw’s daughter, but the Egyptian goddess– involves some occult phenomena, but throughout, Klaw and Searles, the narrator, are merely witnesses to someone else’s mania. There is no crime, there is no mystery, there really isn’t much of a story at all, which makes it all the more disappointing.
Klaw is a near contemporary of Hodgson‛s Carnacki, those stories having appeared between 1910 and 1912 in The Idler magazine, and which came out in book form in 1913. The bar had been set quite high, and though Klaw seems perfectly capable of reaching it, his author was not up to the task.
The Dream Detective was not issued in hardback until 1920 in England, and not until 1925 in America, though four of the stories appeared in All-Story Cavalier Weekly in early 1925.
And on another note..
The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ash Tree Press, 2000
Apart from a handful of M.R.. James tales, I‛ve not read many ghost stories. I‛m not even sure why I picked this volume off my library shelf when there are so many other worthy books awaiting my attention. (As Harlan Ellison said, who wants a library full of books you‛ve already read?) But I did, and it is worth sharing.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a popular Victorian author, and The Cold Embrace collects eighteen of her weird tales, most but not all ghost stories. They span the years 1871-1896, so there is a clear and steady development of writing style. Literary conventions and expectations were different 130 years ago, and what may have been a thrilling twist then now seems predictable and wan. The first couple of stories were, in fact, disappointing. I might have stopped reading then and there, except for the fact that I found I was enjoying Ms. Braddon‛s company immensely. Although there are no shivers here for those who‛ve faced down Poe and Lovecraft and King, The Cold Embrace is a pleasant read, and after all, the magic of all engaging literature and art is that communication of a personality across distance and, more awe-inspiring still, across time.