Friday, May 6, 2011

FFB: The Strange Papers of Dr. Blayre - Edward Heron-Allen

Written under the pseudonym "Christopher Blayre" and presented as a series of manuscripts and documents submitted by the academics at the University of Cosmopoli these tales are parody pastiches that ridicule both the florid writing styles and histrionic content of some well known writers of supernatural stories. The titles of ech story hint at who is being ridiculed. There is also a good deal of satire about life in an academic setting.

"The Purple Sapphire" is about the only story that succeeds as a genuine supernatural tale even with its more subtle forms of parody. "The House on the Way to Hell" is outright parody - mostly a send up of stories that talk about lost books. It's a one joke story really that just repeats itself for far too long. "Pupura Lapillus" is, I am sure, a parody of Robert Chambers' writing and tells the story of a history professor who when studying the purple dye in an odd species of whelk is transported back to ancient Rome (the dye was used to color the robes of the nobility then). In "The Demon" a quack physician cares for a woman dying of cancer who miraculously recovers and is thought to be possessed of a demon but it's unconvincing.

Heron-Allen was also a violin maker in his youth
For outright supernatural the best stories are: "The Purple Sapphire" about a jewel stolen from a Buddhist idol and the curse that attaches itself; "The Thing that Smelled" (parody of Michael Arlen story "The Smell in the Library"?) in which a phony medium goes too far with his spook shows and meets a grisly end; and "The Book" which features gruesome apparitions and a cursed book. "The Cosmic Dust" the final story in the collection is sort of a sequel to "Aalila" both of which owe more to SF than the supernatural.

"Aalila" in fact has an eerily similar plot to William Sloane's SF horror novel To Walk the Night. No critics to my knowledge have ever mentioned this, but it is so similar I find it hard to ascribe it to mere coincidence. Sloane must have been familiar with the Heron-Allen's story prior to writing his book.


  1. I'm always curious as to why people read what they read. I can trace my love for vintage mysteries back to my Grandma Pal's collection of Agatha Christies which I discovered at age nine. What's your story? Why these books? Why does anyone choose a particular genre over another? It's Friday - you may not want to deal with questions like this. But someday, I want to know.

  2. I would like to know as well, Carol. But first I must say that this book, John, is not the sort of thing I would read even under extreme duress. Ha! Can't help it, I can't stand supernatural horror. Or 'horror' of any sort, really. I think I'm just too old to be horrified by spooky doings. I've seen too much. :)

    This is one of the reasons I don't read John Connolly's horror/mysteries. I know he's a fine writer, but I just can't get with the program.

    My favorite mystery parodies are the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. They are mostly written in the melodramatic style of H. Rider Haggard and are SO much fun to read. But I guess I'm digressing.

  3. H.R. Wakefield once wrote a piece called "Why I Write Ghost Stories." I guess I am being called upon to write my version of "Why I Read Ghost Stories." I will only say that I don't particularly like horror per se - it's just easy for me to use that term to classify some of this related supernatural fiction (and saves me typing errors since I always invert several of the letters in supernatural). I absolutely detest modern splatter punk and torture porn fiction and movies. But I am drawn to fantastical stories that feature the unknown and ghosts and whatnot. I've been drawn to them from an early age (as early as nine or ten, I think) when I was fascinated and maybe even addicted to monster movies. It naturally lead to reading the stories that inspired them. I'll mull this over and see if I can find any other reasons behind my fascination.

  4. Horror, which excludes torture porn by my definition but includes ghost stories (torture porn and slasher films being debased forms of suspense drama), has a natural appeal for the young, and a continuing appeal, certainly to me, as a couching of metaphors about extinction and all the related matters, which each of us faces and which we all to some extent have to come to grips with. The fact that horror is fantasy allows it to play more nakedly with metaphor than the "realistic" but otherwise similar suspense fiction and drama might.

    If you hate horror fiction, you probably hate fiction, so I suspect anyone who says they don't like horror is probably excepting much of what I would class as horror.

  5. So was this book published in the 1940s, John?

  6. Todd -

    My copy was the revised one - Philip Alan, 1932. According to Jessica Salmonson's Violet Books website page with the details on the "Creeps" series (which this book is considered a part of) there was an earlier version: "An expansion of The Purple Sapphire & Other Posthumous Papers issued by Philip Alan in 1921, & which, if regarded also part of the Creeps line, moves the starting date back a decade." And now this definitely makes the "Aalila" story even more original than Sloan's use of the plot device in his much later novel.

  7. Extremely strange. A collection of parodies of modern horror writers would be interesting, if there were still such things as short story collections.

  8. The original book, The Purple Sapphbire and Other Posthumous Papers (1921), contained just eight stories. The Strange Papers of Dr. Blayre (1932), released as part of the "Creeps" series, added four stories: "The House on the Way to Hell", "The Mirror That Remembered", "Mane Pantea", and "The Man Who Killed the Jew". [The "Creeps" series -- at least the fourteen anthologies were anonymously edited by Charles Birkin, who may have also been reponsible for selecting the remaining collections and novels in the series.]

    Heron Allen wrote several other episodes in the series, four of which were privately printed in Some Women of the University (1934). An additional story, The Cheetah Girl, was also privately published in 1923; this story had been removed from The Purple Sapphire because of fears of legal action for obscenity. The entire canon has been reprinted as The Collected Strange Papers of Christopher Blayre (Tartarus Press, 1998).

  9. I've got to ask about the story "The Man Who Killed the Jew." Sounds like a Chesterton tale!


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