Thursday, February 10, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books - Deliver Me From Eva

Deliver Me From Eva (1946) by Paul Bailey

As we approach Valentine's Day I thought I'd dig around in my reading logs to find an appropriate love story for today's Forgotten Book. And I think I found the perfect candidate. It's Deliver Me From Eva by Paul Bailey. Based on the title's pun you may think this is some tongue-in-cheek love-turned-hate story. Not by a long shot. That head on a platter ought to be a giveaway.


Mark Allard has just met the love of his life on board a train from San Francisco and in a three day whirlwind romance he and Eva Craner are married. Never mind that he's already engaged to Emily, the daughter of his business partner. He'll just break the news to her later – if he ever sees her again. See he's been taken to Eva's home, a secluded palatial mansion she built (yes, she's a magical architect) expressly suited to Mark's tastes right down to the library made up of all his law books and favorite novels and the huge collection of his favorite classical recordings. How did she know? Eva is a superwoman engineered by her mad scientist father Dr. Craner, a legless and earless freak now confined to a uniquely constructed "glider" on wheels, who was raised by a brilliant naturopath after she rescued him from his ignominious life at a Dickensian orphanage.

Did I say this was love story? Well, it certainly starts out as one. Mark loves Eva. He adores her. He can't stop thinking about her and the unbelievable things she has done for him. That is until he meets her father. Then Mark has a lot more on his mind than his love for Eva. And a lot to worry about.

Dr. Craner has discovered that the plates of the human skull can be manipulated to allow the brain to grow (something Harry Stephen Keeler might have invented) and in the process allow the person to achieve perfection. The resulting efforts of his experiments produced his beautiful, multi-talented daughter Eva, and his stunningly handsome, athletically built son Osman who also happens to be a brilliant pianist.

Centipede Press reissue
As for the rest of the Gothic cast of characters we have the doctor's former guardian, the secretive Margot, now imprisoned after she dared to rebel and attempted an escape. Then there's Castleman, butler/tutor/lab assistant, the doctor's man-of-all-work with a subtly sinister demeanor. Rounding out the household is the demented maid Insa who hates the doctor with an intensity so rabid the reader can only suspect she was the victim of something unspeakable.

And woe to those who defy the doctor. No one can ever leave Thalamus (the anatomically named estate) without Craner's permission. Will Mark manage to escape? Or will he succumb to the worst of Dr. Craner's experiments and become the perfect husband for his perfect wife who will give birth to perfect children? You can only guess. And you will most likely be wrong.

The book was published by Murray & Gee, a very minor house in the post-WW2 era and one not exactly known for choosing the most literate of writers. The rear of the DJ on this book advertises two of the better known "alternative classic" mystery writers (as Bill Pronzini dubs them in Gun in Cheek) -- Milton Raison  and Jimmy Starr. Bailey's prose is on their level with interesting dollops of August Derleth-like antiquated syntax and vocabulary. When the action really gets going Bailey's dialog leans towards the pulp emphatic mood and melodramatic movie-speak. Here's a perfect example that occurs just before the grisly, violent climax:
"You insufferable limb of perdition!" I growled through my teeth at Craner. "I'll kill you for this!"

"Your sutures are opening beautifully," I heard the doctor purr. "Astonishing progress in two treatments!"

"Leave me alone!" I howled in anguish. "In God's name, let me out of here! Please let me out!"

"Why certainly, Mark. We're nearly done. Now please relax." The doctor's bald head and smiling face bent to my vision. Assuredly, were it closer, I'd have torn at it with my teeth.

"Don't tell me to relax," I moaned. "I'll kill you, if I never do another thing!"

"That's shameful talk for a son-in-law," he said, pressing viciously at my throbbing head. "You seem ungrateful for the opportunity I'm giving you. [...] I'm giving you life and light, such as you've never known before." And Craner said it almost tenderly.

"You're a lying fiend, and murderer!" I screamed, threshing madly at my straps.
Paul Bailey, the perpetrator
Deliver Me From Eva is one of the most lurid, over-the-top horror novels I've come across in quite some time. It exceeds the creepy revulsion of The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck tenfold, it out-pulps anything in Weird Tales, and has more decapitations than a historical novel set in the French Revolution. I can't bring myself to tell you what happens to all those heads. Thankfully, we are spared any Salome allusions (other than the DJ illustration). But given the tendency to a florid prose style I wonder why Bailey wasn't tempted to throw in a few.

My one caveat is that the book ends so unimaginatively. After all the build-up, all the weird mystery, and a bloody climax to rival that of Sweeney Todd, we are left with a wimpy nebulous finale dominated by New Age mumbo jumbo and Margot's endless cryptic references to Eva's cycle (no, it's not that time of the month for her). Many questions are left unanswered. Instead of being satisfied I was left scratching my head, a bit confused. Anticlimactic to say the least. But our hero and his Eva are together in the final pages. Just like any good love story, right?

Centipede Press, a small independent publisher, reprinted the book and copies are apparently still available at their website and other sites catering to horror fiction. A handful of copies of the original 1st edition being sold online start at $100 a pop and rise sharply in price from dealer to dealer. It's too bad that no cheap paperback reprint exists that would make this book easily accessible to a wider audience.

11 comments:

  1. Tongue no doubt in cheek, Robert Bloch chose this as one if the 100 BEST MODERN HORROR NOVELS --- at least I hope it was tongue in cheek.

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  2. I'll have to track this down. Lurid, but right down my alley.

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  3. I, too, often wondered why Bloch was choosing to highlight this guy...though his title here was echoed for what I think was Marijane Meaker/"Vin Packer"/"M. E. Kerr"'s first explicitly lesbian-themed YA novel, under the last byline...

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  4. I didn't know Bloch had one of those lists. I only knew of this odd, obscure (until Centipede resurrected it) book when I found Kim Newman & Stephen Jones' list of "100 Best Horror Books" on the web about eight years ago. Later I discovered this list came from a book of the same name that was a compilation of articles by genre writers who nominated and wrote about their favorites. Was the article on Bailey's book Robert Bloch's contribution to that criticism anthology? Or did Bloch make up a list all his own? Someone clue me in.

    I have a big quibble with Newman & Jones and their use of "book" as many of the titles are plays! And their very loose description of "horror" allows for books that I would classify otherwise. It's a chronological list so that the ranking number has nothing to do with quality or lack thereof. I think the wide scope is an attempt to show how horror tropes have evolved in the hands of writers of all skill levels. The list runs the gamut from horror "literature" to mainstream novels with horror elements to titles like Baileys' book which is as far from literature or a mainstream novel as you can get.

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  5. "Out-pulps anything in Weird Tales". Now THAT takes a lot of doing! I won't be reading it, but I'm really glad to know of it's existence. I think.

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  6. John

    David here:

    The article in the Newman and Jones book is Bloch's contribution. Thomas Disch for instance chose Eugene Sue's THE WANDERING JEW.

    All the books in the book edition are either novels or collections of short stories save for the first three entries, all Elizabethan drama by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Webster (Dr. FAUSTUS, MACBETH, WHITE DEVIL). Some like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE etc. were later plays and films, but every book on the list was first a novel or short story collection save for those first three and bloody as the Elizabethan playrights were we can hardly argue with their inclusion.

    I think MACBETH is John Blackburn's contribution.

    I would also point out some of us read plays much like novels or short stories --- especially classical drama --- productions of Webster in particular aren't common.

    But even reading Bloch's review I still don't know if he wrote it tongue in cheek --- it's hard to tell with a fellow who has the heart of a twelve year old --- in a jar on his desk.

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  7. David -

    I read more than my fair share of plays as a Brit Lit major in college. I also was required to read hundreds of plays as a theater performance major. I know all too well that some read plays as literature. But if all forms of literature were included in this overview of horror literature, then the title of the book should be the 100 BEST HORROR WORKS, don't you think? Splitting hairs, I know.

    A trivial aside: next to Shakespeare I think John Webster is probably the most alluded to playwright in the detective fiction genre. The Duchess of Malfi in particular is a favorite source of quotes, allusions, and even book titles for many mystery novelists. "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young" shows up twice in Christie's books and as the title of a P.D. James novel. Long before I was studying literature I became acquainted with his plays by my reading of numerous detective fiction novels and short stories.

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  8. This was Forrest Ackerman's choice in 100 Best Books, not Bloch's. Bloch's choice was the Cadaver of Gideon Wyck.

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  9. Thanks, Unnamed One. I read portions of the Newman & Jones book once and made notes of a few titles. I've read The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck a while ago and think it's truly one of the creepiest sickest books ever written. A perfect choice for Bloch.

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  10. John,

    Cadaver certainly is a creepy book, and clearly an influence on Bloch. I just got the Bruins Books edition of Eva, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

    Best, David

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