Wednesday, October 31, 2012

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Curse of Rathlaw

This is a series of books published from 1968 through 1970 in various paperback and hardcover editions centering on a group called The Guardians who run an occult detective agency. Though easy to find via online sources I rarely find them in bookstores out here. So when I came across a copy of this second book in a series I've always wanted to read I immediately grabbed it. "Peter Saxon" is a house name for at least five different writers all of whom contributed to the Sexton Blake series for Amalgamated Press. The Saxon name was also used, with two writers dreaming up the plots and three others writing the books, to market these occult thrillers featuring the Guardians. If this book is any indication of what the others are like then I am eager to read them all.

The Curse of Rathlaw (1968) is at its core an elaborate revenge story with two supernaturally powerful brothers plotting their other worldly vengeance on the Rathlaw family. Fergus Trayle, the elder and more evil of the two brothers, was caught in the act of raping a young woman by some men on a hunting expedition. They bring Trayle (known to the locals as the Hermit of Black Loch) to Sir Alistair Rathlaw, laird and bigwig in this part of Scotland, for punishment. Rathlaw sickened by the Hermit's act resorts to a rather medieval punishment and has Fergus publicly whipped and beaten. Humiliated and enraged by the brutal severity of his punishment Fergus curses Sir Alistair's family and promises that his only son will be the end of the Rathlaw line. Sir Alistair will know the prophecy is approaching fruition with the passing of two omens: 1. Alistair's brother will be struck blind and 2. a kelpie (a water spirit in the form of a horse) will appear in the area of the Rathlaw estate. Following those two events Sir Alistair should be prepared for the worst -- the death of his son. Sir Alistair is frightened enough after the fulfillment of the two omens to seek out the Guardians hoping they will be able to prevent the third and final act in the Hermit's revenge.

Kelpie statues in Chicago (©2012 Andy Scott)
Fergus and his brother Cosmo are thoroughly wicked men ready to use and abuse everyone they encounter. Cosmo makes his living as a medium and he thinks nothing of using his hypnotic powers to manipulate a woman still in love with her long dead lover into believing he wants her to join him in eternity. So she offs herself, but not before signing over her entire fortune to Cosmo in order that "he might continue his good work in psychical research." Poor woman. That's only a sampling of the nastiness the Trayle brothers indulge in.

The real highlight of the book is the emphasis on Scottish folklore, Celtic superstition and weird occult practices. Among the many included are the Su-Dith, a superhuman dwarf; frequent divination using radiesthesia; and a mute boy who has the uncanny power called "The Horseman's Word" that he uses to summon a water kelpie. The scenes with the boy and his mentally unhinged mother are the best in the book I think. Too bad much of the story is spent on the somewhat tiresome evildoing of Cosmo and Fergus of a kind we've all read of before. Overall, the book is more in line with an action horror movie from the 1960s and has many sequences that will seem all too familiar with anyone well versed in the genre. The finale, especially, brings to mind the occult ritual scenes in The Wicker Man, The Witches, The Devil Rides Out and many, many other horror flicks and stories.

Below is the correct series order by original publication date. Anything else you may find on the internet purporting to be the order of this series is incorrect. Part of the problem is that a number order for the series was printed on the covers of US paperback publisher Berkley's editions of the books. All of these editions were published in the 1970s and they are mostly second printings of the books. The Killing Bone cannot possibly be the first book because Dark Ways to Death was published in hardcover in the UK in 1968. Caveat lector!

The Guardians series
Dark Ways to Death (1968)
Through the Dark Curtain (1968)
The Curse of Rathlaw (1968)
The Killing Bone (1969)
The Haunting of Alan Mais (1969)
The Vampires of Finistere (1970)

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, John!

    I've read some interesting things about this series of novels but have yet to get a hold of any. I'm a big fan of occult investigator fiction and this sounds right up my street, especially in those novels of the series that focus more on the actual Guardians themselves. The Scottish folklore angles in RATHLAW sound particularly appealing. I'll be keeping an eye out online for these books.

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    1. Despite my griping, it's a good one for occult detectives. I liked it overall. I just read so much of this stuff sometimes I get tired of the climactic "human sacrifice that must be thwarted" set piece. I think the action is evenly balanced between the Guardians and the two Trayle brothers. Lionel Marks gets most of the "stage time" among the Guardians. Father John, Anne Ashby and Steven Kane are also featured with the priest and Anne having some of the best scenes. Gideon Cross has a very minor role in this one.

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  2. I've read Through the Dark Curtain and Dark Ways to Death. As a fan of horror fiction, I must say this is a pretty intriguing series. Steven Kane is a cool campaigner, the storylines are extremely compelling, the tension is intense and the mood is always grave and solemn. I read somewhere that the best book in the series is The Vampires of Finistere. Can't find it in my local bookstores. Gotta look online.

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