Friday, October 14, 2011

FFB: The Secrets of Dr Taverner - Dion Fortune

Ash Tree Press edition (2000)
My October salute to forgotten supernatural and occult works of fiction continues with this contribution to the occult detective genre by Dion Fortune. In reality Violet Mary Firth, Fortune was a staunch believer in past lives and reincarnation. She was even the founder of her own occult society The Fraternity of the Inner Light (now known as The Society of Inner Light).

Originally published in 1926, The Secrets of Dr. Taverner is a collection of short stories detailing the lives of the troubled patients who come to the doctor who runs a nursing home for people with unusual mental disorders. He is assisted in the care of these patients by Dr. Rhodes, the medical superintendent, and narrator of the stories. The tales run the gamut of the occult and the supernatural and include vampirism, astral projection, necromancy, cursed objects, spirit communication, spectral manifestations, and very often mind control.

I particularly liked "The Scented Poppies" as it is a good example of the true occult detective. Unlike most of the tales in the collection this one is structured like a detective story with Dr. Taverner doing genuine criminal investigation. It reminded me of the best of Conan Doyle's work in the second half of the story when he adopts a disguise and lays a trap for an antiquarian acting as Irving's accessory.

A wealthy businessman seeks out Dr. Taverner and tells a tale of questionable deaths. Each time he makes out a new will the principal legatee commits suicide. Suspicion falls on the youngest in the line of heirs --Irving, a ne'er-do-well with a skill for interior decorating. Taverner and Rhodes soon learn that Irving had sent gifts of poppies to each of the suicide victims. The poppies had a strong and peculiar odor that Taverner believes to have hypnotic occult powers. They intercept the latest gift and examine the flowers discovering strange seeds hidden inside one as well as a moonstone. When Rhodes handles the moonstone he undergoes a series of rapid association of thoughts leading from memories of his mother to wanting to be rid of the jewel. And Taverner grabs the jewel out of Rhodes' hand before he can follow through with a desire to hurl both himself and the jewel out the open window.

Dr. Taverner always explains much of the other worldly phenomena he and Dr Rhodes encounter in terms of the human soul. Love, or more accurately the lack of the proper love, are often are the root cause of all the strange events. He talks of "souls in dungeons" and admonishes his partner for not showing compassion for their patients.
The more you see of human nature, the less you feel inclined to condemn it, for you realize how hard it has struggled. No one does wrong because he likes it, but because it is the lesser of the two evils.
Llewellyn trade paperback edition (1978)
In "Blood-Lust," for example, Donald Craigie who develops an unearthly desire to consume the blood of animals (and nearly his fiancée's) is described as a "spirit parasite." Arnold Black, who has been overcome with an addiction to speed and chase and is in danger of killing himself has been hypnotized by a strange sort of glamour. When asked how he feels when engaging in his fast driving and daredevil airplane piloting Black replies, "I feel as if I were in love." Taverner is also often trying to reunite souls separated from one another due to improper shifts in reincarnation. In "The Soul that Would Not Be Born" a man kisses a woman, they look deeply into each other's eyes and recognize each other from previous lives. It is a fairy tale-like story where the power of the kiss solves all problems and brings about true love.

These stories have much in common with similar occult detective stories by Margery Lawrence whose Dr. Miles Pennoyer spends much of his time doing battle with weird manifestations that are the result of love gone wrong or a child being separated from its parent. Even L. Adams Beck's Dr. James Livingstone, who appears in The Openers of the Gate (1930), devotes much of his time to reuniting lost loves or exorcising ghosts who are mourning their past love lives. It seems to be a peculiarity of women writers who create physicians or psychiatrists who investigate occult disturbances that love and the loss of love are at the bottom of all the ghostly business.

Dion Fortune was a woman of mystery in her own right and I won't attempt to give even a smidgen of biography which is shrouded in ambiguity and secrets that rival those found in her fiction. You can start here for an overview of her life. There are currently four Dion Fortune biographies. If you can find a cheap copy of the Ash-Tree Press reissue of ...Dr Taverner you can read Jack Adrian's usual thoroughly researched and lengthy introduction - more of a biography in miniature than an assessment of the book and stories.

Although Fortune wrote more non-fiction works on her belief in the occult and the arcane, it is her fiction that is far more interesting and of course entertaining. Her complete fictional output is listed below. Much of it, including The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, is obtainable in the used book market at reasonable prices.

The Secrets of Dr. Taverner (1926)
The Demon Lover (1927)
The Winged Bull (1935)
The Goat-Foot God (1936)
Sea Priestess (1938)
Moon Magic (1956)


  1. As interesting as you describe it, this sounds just a little too offbeat for me, but then I'm not much for the occult. Now if you were offering a copy of The Bolt here, I might be more enthusiastic...

  2. This sounds even wierder than the story of the caretaker of that weedy field. :)