Friday, November 8, 2019

FFB: The Reluctant Medium - L. P. Davies

THE STORY:  A self-described "business consultant" is recruited into becoming a ghostbuster when strange apparitions manifest themselves at Butchart House. Either a ghost is seeking retribution or a very clever and cruel human is serving up a nasty bit of revenge. David Conway, with the help of his policeman friend Clifford Pearson, digs up the past and unearths secrets spookier than a mere ghostly visitor.

THE CHARACTERS: Jennifer Rawson, ward of the ancient invalid Matthew Rawson, turns to her friend David Conway to help root out the truth of the ghostly visitor who scared the daylights out of her houseguest Sheila Brand.  The apparition complete with lemony scent and wailing and moaning seems to be the ghost of Walter Hudd, a former business associate of her "uncle" who was framed for a crime he never committed.  He committed suicide several years ago vowing shortly before his death to get his revenge on those who wronged him.  When a sample of Hudd's handwriting delivered in person by a woman spiritualist who claims the message was part of an seance and automatic writing she composed while under a trance even Matthew Rawson, Jennifer's foster father and guardian can be convinced that something supernatural is happening.  David Conway is however not so gullible.

This is a fine example of the ghostbusting occult detective subgenre wherein an amateur detective is determined to prove ostensibly supernatural events are nothing more than the work of clever frauds and con artists.  Fictional accounts of these types of detective novels were very popular in the days following World War 1 when spiritualism had a resurgence and fraudulent mediums were quick to capitalize on the overwhelming number of people grieving for loved ones lost to the carnage of war.  The Ghost Girl (1913) by Henry Kitchell Webster, is one of the best examples of crooked mediums preying on the grief-stricken and draining their bank accounts with the promises of communication form the Great Beyond.  In The Reluctant Medium (1967) we find two questionable spiritualists in a mother and son team, Mrs. Proudfoot and Sidney. David Conway visits their very freeform operation run out of the Proudfoot home hoping to see some of the usual tricks and gimmicks of fraudsters. A surprise is in store for David when, while in an attempt to communicate with one of the regular client's dead relatives, Mrs. Proudfoot in a weird trance begins to utter words and phrases that have meaning only to David.  He is spooked and shaken and leaves the Proudfoot home thinking that the old woman may in fact have a supernatural gift.
UK 1st edition with original title:
Tell It to the Dead (1966)


Later he hears a confession from Sheila Brand, the witness to the ghostly manifestation at Butchart House. She too feels that she has some sort of talent. To her it is a curse, not a gift.  Eerie things happen wherever she goes: strange visions appear, odd smells manifest and other worldly voices cry out to her.  She is convinced the ghost is all her fault and begins to behave increasingly neurotic with paranoid imaginings. Everyone around her fears she is headed for a nervous breakdown. David listens attentively, leaves Sheila in the care of the women, but treats all he hears and sees with suspicion. He is sure that Simon Proudfoot is colluding with Walter Hudd's son Leslie in a sort of combined blackmail and psychological revenge scheme.  The bulk of the story is spent in some complex detective work as David looks into the past lives of Walter and Rose Hudd and the bizarre trail of foster families where Leslie ended up after his father committed suicide and his mother refused to raise her own child.

Then tragedy strikes. Just as David is about to visit Mrs. Hudd for a second time and get the full details on Leslie's past history and some connections to the Rawson family she has a fatal accident. It seems all too convenient to David, ever quick to suspect bad deeds and devious characters at work behind the scenes. He convinces Det.-Sgt. Pearson to treat the accidental fall as a possible murder. Together the two conduct a covert investigation combining the ghost activity at Butchart House with Mrs. Hudd’s death. What they uncover will prove to be more astonishing than the possibility of a real ghost or genuine psychic ability.

INNOVATIONS:  Of all the books I have read by L. P. Davies this one comes closest to a traditional detective novel. That is also an occult detective novel is an added bonus. There are well planted clues, lots of genuine detective work, surprises galore, several shocking deaths beside Mrs. Hudd's, and a final twist right out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. Yes, literally out of the pages of a Christie novel. I dare not tell you the book that has the exact twist, but that Davies managed to fool me is the highest praise I can give both the writer and this book.  Once again, I found myself gasping aloud on the bus when I read a single sentence in the penultimate chapter.  "Just like in UNMENTIONABLE TITLE by Agatha!" I said to myself. I challenge any Christie fan to read this mystery novel and pick up on the trick Davies uses. The story is so well told that never once did I ever suspect anything off in the narrative and still he easily pulled the wool over my eyes. It was masterfully accomplished and yet should have been all too obvious!

OTHER EDITIONS:  The Reluctant Medium was originally published in England under the title Tell It to the Dead (see cover of that edition above). It is this edition that is most easy to find in the used book market.  The US edition, a copy of which I found only few weeks ago as a cheap ex-library book in surprisingly excellent condition, is very scarce. The book was released under one of Davies' many pseudonyms. He wrote two novels as "Leslie Vardre" and apparently wrote several short stories using that pen name, too.  I have yet to see any of his short stories under any name, let alone his own.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 2: Kthulhu Reich - Asamatsu Ken

Rudolf Hess battles the elder gods. Adolf Hitler monkeying around with black magic books after he dropped out of art school. A female vampire lures Nazi soldiers to her castle and tricks them into setting in motion an apocalyptic plot. So you thought Dennis Wheatley was the only writer obsessed with Nazis and black magic? Think again.

Kthulhu Reich (2019) is a collection of bizarrely over-the-top, sometimes ludicrously entertaining, horror stories from the fertile imagination of Asamatsu Ken. The tales have been meticulously translated into English by Jim Rion, an expatriate English teacher and translator formerly of Kansas now living in Yamaguchi prefecture. Publisher Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press assures me that while Rion’s translations seem to be near parodies of the Weird Tales school of writing they are accurate and in the spirit of the original Japanese texts. I found them to be generously peppered with enough American vernacular and colloquialisms to give the stories a retro-pulp magazine feel. Lipsett joked that though I may think they may be too Western or “Americanized” these are German characters written by a Japanese writer who speak in Japanese in the original stories and now English in this translation. But in all accounts they should be speaking in German! No matter. They do indulge in the typical “Ja wohl, Herr Kapitän!” we are used to hearing from British accented actors who play Nazis in the old war movies of days gone by.

I didn’t really know what to make of this book before I cracked it open. I figured I should prepare myself for some kind of Dennis Wheatley/H. P. Lovecraft mash-up by way of Japanese worldview. Was I ever wrong! These stories could easily have been lifted from the pages of any of the American shudder pulps. Rion, the translator, must clearly be a fan of the kind of stories Lovecraft and all his imitators wrote back in the day. So faithful are these stories to the spirit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that the entire book is annotated with scholarly footnotes that make it sound as if the creatures encountered in the pages are actually real. In addition to the detailed descriptions recounting the history of Lovecraft’s many “elder gods” that appear in the book, along with the lives of Lovecraft characters (and those created by Derleth, Bloch and Robert E. Howard) there are eye-opening footnotes on the historical facts surrounding the occult interests of Rudolf Hess and his influences on Hitler. We also learn about the members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who were also wrapped up with the Axis powers and German soldiers. Who knew there were magicians in wartime England sympathizing with the Nazis?

But onto the stories themselves…

Those that are modeled after Lovecraft and pay homage to his Cthulhu Mythos are by far the most entertaining. Minor stories like “The Colonel’s Self-Portrait” and “April 20, 1889” rely too much on gimmicks. The first is a shaggy dog story with an ending I should’ve seen coming from page two. The other is done as a collection of diary entries and letters. Both stories are less effective if the reader is an avid student of World War 2 history. The title of the second is a dead giveaway to the final twist and lessens the power of what might have been an eyebrow raising surprise on the last page had it been named anything else. And a warning to the fainthearted (are there any among horror fiction fans?) -- "April 20, 1889" also deals graphically with the Jack the Ripper murders and goes into disgustingly obscene detail in how the crimes were committed. Splatterpunk fans have something to look forward to there.

The most successful and effective stories of the seven in this volume are those that abandon the traditional trappings of vampires and witchcraft and go all out in depicting the wild adventures of trippy black magic obsessed Nazis.  The footnotes tell us that a lot of this stuff is based on fact. That's double the trippiness for your buck right there.

First published in separate issues of Hayakawa S-F in 1994 and 1995 two stories make up one long novelette of recurring themes and characters. These two should be read in the order as arranged and saved for last for they are truly the cream of the crop in this nifty book. The first of this double feature "The Mask of Yoth Tlaggon" is like a Hammer horror movie on paper. Instead of Charles Gray as the evil sorcerer I'd cast the more appropriate Klaus Kinski as the evil Rudolph Hess, Hitler's Deputy Führer, bent on mastering the universe and conquering Third Reich with the help of an ancient artifact that allows the wearer to commune with powerful gods from an alternate universe.  It's a wild ride of a story that almost tops the best scenes in Dennis Wheatley's masterful occult thriller The Devils Rides Out. Hess is joined by Tatewaki Goto and Clara Haffner, two intelligence agents in disguise as diplomats. Clara is also "a runic magus" well versed in reading the language of ancient spells that will come in handy during the rousing climax, an operatic showdown of black magic and phantasmagorical visions.

"Call of Cthulhu"
(courtesy of redskullspage.tumblr.com)

The saga of the Mask of Yoth Tlaggon continues in the story immediately following “In the Wasteland of Madness” in which a young aristocratic Nazi, Major Erich von Müller, is forced to wear the mask and report what he's seen. His visions offer up clues of an impending expedition to the Antarctic where Kriegsmarine Leutnant Krenze, the brawny, blond haired "very model of a German soldier" expects to uncover the lost world of Thule, believed to be the origin of the Aryan race. What they discover there instead is more horrifying than beautiful.  Lovecraft fans will eat this one up. Once again the plethora of footnotes fills in the background on the origins of the strange creatures, the lives of the historical figures who appear or are mentioned in passing, and the litany of arcane occult texts and forbidden books created by Lovecraft and his acolytes. It's hard to believe that the Nazis genuinely were involved in explorations of the occult and black magic, but there are documented facts to reveal it is in part true. The legendary and secretive exploration of the Antarctic seems to be more anecdotal and apocryphal than factual though many people believe it did take place. What the German soldiers discovered there is left to the imagination of the true believers and writers like Asamatsu.

This is a bizarre and surreal example of mash-up of fact and fiction that delivers the goods in three of the seven stories. Reading these stories seemed like a flashback trip to the 1960s drive-ins that used to show Hammer horror movies overstocked with bloodthirsty vampires and vengeful creatures from the dark side.  I had a blast reading this book, loved the Lovecraft homage, and recommend it to  the horror hounds out there in search of something completely different.  Dennis Wheatley and Lovecraft I'm sure are smiling somewhere in the Great Beyond knowing that this book exists.