Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Number Seven Queer Street - Margery Lawrence

Robert Hale, 1st UK edition
Why is it that the majority of the occult detective are always physicians? Or psychiatrists? Or therapists of some sort? Granted there is a strong influence of John Silence hiding in the shadows whether or not the writer is courteous enough to acknowledge Algernon Blackwood's "grandfather of occult detectives." In a straight detective story the private eye or other investigator is merely seeking the solution to a mysterious crime. Nab the killer or thief and the problem is over. All is set right. In an occult mystery the culprit, more often than not, is rarely human and the problem has left deep emotional scars on the victim - if he is lucky to be still alive. Several writers have chosen physicians as their occult detectives to become caretakers of the soul. It is not only a crime or mysterious occurrence that must be put right, there is healing of the psyche that must take place.

Take Margery Lawrence's creation Dr. Miles Pennoyer. He owes much to John Silence. (In fact, Lawrence credits both Blackwood and Dion Fortune's Dr. Taverner as being major influences in her writing these stories). Here is a near perfect clone of Blackwood's physician of the extraordinary. Pennoyer first appears in  Number Seven Queer Street in which he battles a Chinese demon, the ghost of a suicidal architect, a sinister sorcerer, a snakelike apparition, and many other strange and weird entities. Like Silence, Pennoyer traveled in the Far East and underwent vigorous training in the mystic arts. Like Silence he takes clients who are troubled by matters that are beyond the understanding of medical science and beyond the scope of the law.

He says to his chronicler Jerome Latimer:
"I have been trained not to disregard phrases, however apparently trivial, that come into mind. They are indicative‚ descriptive perhaps, is a better word‚ of impressions; and though words may not be important, impressions most certainly are."
Here is the key to Pennoyer's approach to solving or even diagnosing his client's problem. Unlike many of the rational detectives of mystery and crime fiction these occult or psychic detectives rely heavily on intuition. And truly there is something to be said of the "gut instinct" even if some of the occult detectives also claim to have extrasensory perception. In Miles Pennoyer's case his special vegetarian diet is key to maintaining his special skills. Having a body unpolluted by meat or alcohol helps heighten his senses and aids in communication with psychic forces. Is this Margery speaking to us here? Perhaps she, too, was an avid vegetarian teetotaler. It certainly is mentioned often enough to seem like proselytizing.

For the most part, Pennoyer (and one assumes Lawrence) is interested in matters of the heart. Of the seven very long tales in Number Seven Queer Street nearly all of them deal with some aspect of love relationships. Pennoyer spends most of the story trying to figure out what psychic connection must be fixed before two troubled parties can finally be at peace. Often one of the parties is human and the other is not.  Always some element of the supernatural or occult is at play. There is the demon lover who haunts the man in "The Case of the Bronze Door;" the strong bond between a Scottish maid and a stray dog that leads Pennoyer to believe the dog is a reincarnated human soul in "The Case of the Ella MacLeod;" and the curious whip-like mark on George Kynaston's arm that has some link to a ghostly manifestation in "The Case of the Young Man with the Scar." Perhaps the best example of this psychic connection problem occurs in "The Case of the White Snake."

Margery Lawrence, circa 1919
In this weird tale an orphanage is haunted by nightly visits from a spectral snake. It seems to be fixated on one particular charge, Colette, a four year-old girl rescued from a bombed village in France. Pennoyer stays up late as a guardian and notes the snake is in fact an emanation that takes the form of a cord or cable that runs the length of the courtyard outside the girl's bedroom window and ends at the window of a guest house. Lawrence's point in seen quite clearly here:
"Anything from the Other Side is apt to look sinister to people who don't understand it and its reason for appearing ....what does emerge is that there is a strong psychic link... If you had psychic insight you would see that husbands and wives, lovers, sisters and brothers, parents and children who truly love each other are linked by a sort of psychic umbilical cord."
In "The White Snake" that cord literally takes shape to connect the child to a loved one who happens to be staying on the grounds of the orphanage. Pennoyer elaborates further when Latimer scoffs at the psychic link claim.
"But even if there's no link of this life between them...that does not mean there is no connection between their souls, their older selves. There may be a very strong connection there that dates from some previous life. A connection that is still so strong that in sleep it reaches out blindly, gropingly, hungering to renew the link that once existed unbroken between them."
By this third tale in the collection the reader sees that Lawrence intends her stories to transcend the horror element in favor of human emotion and sentiment. She uses motifs of ghost stories and weird tales to introduce unusual "psychic relationships" that have gone awry. Pennoyer enters the picture to "heal" those relationships in a sort of occult therapy session. He even has a bag of tricks — the so-called bogey bag — to help him out when straight intuition and human intervention will not alone solve the problems. Latimer describes the bag as "containing all sorts of oils and unguents, queer-looking metal contraptions, robes and headgear, various documents and a book or two, packets of herbs, odd-looking amulets, all manner of things that might be needed by my colleague in his frequent battles with the Forces of the Outer Dark." That's some kind of suitcase!

Another recurring theme in Lawrence's collection is that of redemption best illustrated in the second tale "The Case of the Haunted Cathedral." This is an intricately layered story that starts out as a straightforward haunting story but soon becomes a story of a hidden crime. Pennoyer visits the cathedral and witnesses not one but two separate manifestations. It appears that the cathedral may be haunted but the ghost is haunted by another ghost! The answer lies in a hidden diary and the solution calls for an elaborate exorcism. The plot is convoluted and asks the reader to swallow a bit too much all at once.

Arkham House, 1st U.S. edition
"The Case of the Moonchild" is very much like a Sax Rohmer thriller with its baroque depiction of the occultist Father Aloysius. He has an affected manner and dress similar to the villains in Fire-Tongue and The Brood of the Witch Queen. He is even accompanied by a bodyguard who seems to have escaped from the extras cast of a Fu Manchu story. There is Svengali-like mesmerism, a jeweled cross with inscribed symbols of an ancient cult, and the discovery of a pillow stuffed with the leaves of a Greek plant called the Diktamnos. This story, unlike the others, is focused on an occult plot and reaches its climax in a richly detailed, eerie ritual performed on the moonlit grounds of a girls' academy. Also, Jerome Latimer narrates this story from his own point of view and for once takes an active part in the storyline. Probably because it abandons the love relationship motif (although the psychic link element is still present) I found this story to be one of the better tales as far as an entertaining thriller.

Critic Everett Bleiler, however, prefers the final story "The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe" as the best example of Lawrence's handling of the supernatural. In it we are treated to yet another child with a problem that is beyond normal comprehension and regular doctors and priests have been unable to explain. Ev is not too kind with Margery. His entry for Lawrence's book in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction says she has a nice touch with creating stories but that they are often "drowning in words." I will agree with him on that point. She has an unnecessary habit of veering off on tangents that do nothing but annoy the reader and distract from the main point. But here in "Leannabh Sidhe" the tale is fairly uncluttered and is probably even better as a genuine detective story than any of the others.

The plot is a weird spin on the "Bad Seed/Devil Child" subgenre. Patrick Flaherty, the bad child, is not exactly a murderer but he seems responsible for unfortunate accidents that befall anyone who crosses him. Some of those accidents prove fatal. He used to be a happy-go-lucky boy, but a strange transformation overcame shortly after his father died in a car accident back in Ireland. Now Patrick grows irritable and angry at the mention of his former homeland. He spends most of his time playing with animals (except dogs; they shun him everywhere) and intimidating nearly every adult he encounters. Only his aunt and a servant have the courage to face up to him and his antics. Patrick's mother has been reduced to a timid yes-woman, completely in her son's power She has turned to her sister, Miss Cargill, for advice on how to return Patrick to his normal boyhood instead of the "strange otherness, this thing not quite human," he has become. Enter Dr. Miles Pennoyer who will play the part of Patrick's new tutor in order to observe his behavior and interaction up close.

Of all the tales in the volume, "Leannabh Sidhe" is the best constructed mystery story. True there is a strong supernatural element, however, the story overall is written in a manner to tease the reader, to get him asking questions just as a lover of whodunits would: What exactly happened to Patrick? Why does everyone refer to him as a "thing" and not a boy? What is in that sketchbook he keeps secret from everyone? Why does he continually make fun of his own name and claim to have a different one? There are many more questions an astute and curious reader will ask throughout this well written, suspenseful tale. All those questions will be answered. A clever reader who has a knowledge of Celtic legends and mythology will be able to outguess Pennoyer before he announces to Miss Cargill his final diagnosis and cure for Patrick.

"Leannabh Sidhe" is a strong story, but I still prefer the lurid nature of "The Moonchild" over this drawn out affair that is bogged down with multiple third hand narratives by characters who have overheard conversations, a popular motif in detective stories and novels. Pennoyer must travel all the way to Ireland and hunt down a seemingly insignificant maid to get a first hand account (finally!) and receive the final piece to the puzzle of Patrick's transformation. By that time, all the clues have been presented and the reader is fairly certain what and who is responsible for the bizarre personality change. The climax — rather Lovecraftian in its descriptions — in which Pennoyer must perform an ancient ritual armed with occult tools from his bogey bag and ending in a face-off with Patrick's true father is well worth the wait.

The Miles Pennoyer stories were published in two collections.
Number Seven Queer Street (Robert Hale, 1945)
Master of Shadows (Robert Hale, 1959)

There was also a U.S. edition of Number Seven Queer Street published by Arkaham House. Unfortunately, for copyright purposes two stories were excluded in that edition. The U.K. edition has all seven tales, the US version only five.

[NOTE: I wrote this in 2001 for "The Weird Review" - an e-zine devoted to the discussion of classic and vintage supernatural and weird fiction. I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in broadening their choice of reading material in supernatural fiction - especially the Victorian and Edwaradian era ghost stories of so many incomparable writers.]

1 comment:

  1. The recommendation and url for The Weird Review is much appreciated.