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|
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|
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.