Monday, October 31, 2011

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Devil of Pei Ling - Herbert Asbury

Far from a work of literary stature The Devil of Pei-Ling (1927) is an all-out, over-the-top bonanza of horror and occult trappings.  It's been one of my favorite early 20th century horror novels and a perfect example of the excesses of pulp magazine writing.

Asbury began his career as a yellow journalist then turned to writing true crime books focusing on the most lurid and sensational events and people he could uncover. His book Gangs of New York is very well known now thanks to Martin Scorsese's film of the same name. He also wrote about the gamblers, prostitutes and seedy underworld of Northern California at the turn of the 19th century in Barbary Coast. His only ventures into fiction that I know of are this supernatural thriller and the relatively low-key (by comparison) detective novel, The Tick of the Clock, also featuring Inspector Tommy Conroy.

You know you're in for a weird-fest when on the first page Asbury lists several non-fiction sources on the occult that he apparently used to add an element of realism to his novel. The book is filled with didactic lectures, true life anecdotes, historical background related to topics like black mass practices, demonology and paranormal phenomena all on prominent display. Asbury wastes no time in setting the proper mood when in the first chapter we meet a Jane Doe recuperating in a Manhattan hospital from mysterious bleeding wounds of unknown etiology (as they say in the medical world). The physician narrator is convinced her wounds are the signs of stigmata. He discusses at length how throughout history women displaying stigmata have been thought to be omens incarnate for impending evil. No sooner has Inspector Conroy been called in to consult on this strange case then the first horrible event takes place.

A judge has been found murdered in a grotesque manner in his bedroom. The only witness to the crime is a butler who describes seeing gouts of blood dripping from the ceiling, walls, and furniture while the judge, incredibly suspended in midair, was strangled with a ghostly snakelike rope also dripping blood. Then the rope vanished, along with the visionary blood, and the judge's body collapsed to the floor. The police surgeon examining the body swears that the man had been executed by a hangman's rope as his neck is broken and no other wounds or signs of death can be found. What unearthly force is at work here?

It only gets better, gang. Conroy receives a strange phone call from an otherworldly guttural sounding voice promising another death. The phone call is traced to the home of one Dorothy Crawford. Conroy and Jerry, the physician with no last name, make their way to her home. Before even approaching the front door Conroy notices a woman dressed in a black robe in the window of an apartment in the building. The two men watch as she kneels before a small desk resembling a tiny altar. It is surrounded with black candles with a toad atop it. She appears to be in a trace-like state and is chanting in a low guttural voice, a knife is in her hand. They interrupt her by ringing the doorbell and enter to interrogate her about the strange phone call.

Soon we learn that Crawford had a relationship with Silvio, an executed murderer, and that the murderer had vowed vengeance on all who convicted him. The judge was apparently the first of his victims. A district attorney is next on the list. Dorothy Crawford has managed to contact Silvio's spirit through the black arts and it is manifesting itself alternately in the form of a giant toad and a murderous demon. Can Conroy and Doc Jerry stop this mad thing before it slaughters more innocent people? Not before they brush up on their exorcism skills. Oh yes! There's an exorcism par excellence in the climax.

A better "more bang for your buck" occult thriller will not appear until Dennis Wheatley shows up about ten years later with The Devil Rides Out. In Asbury's book you get stigmata, black mass rituals, vengeful ghost, supernatural manifestations galore, gory murders, buckets of blood, and demonic possession by an evil Asian deity. It's like a decade's worth of Weird Tales issues between two covers of a single book. The dialog is rife with overuse of the exclamation mark to underscore the hysterical melodrama and dire situations. While Asbury's book is far from literature, it is great fun. The perfect kind of read for this time of year when we all turn to the macabre for a little dip into the pool of guilty pleasures. With the excesses found in The Devil of Pei-Ling, however, you may be in danger of learning how a little dip can turn into a near drowning.

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