Friday, March 14, 2014

FFB: Sheet Lightning - Joan Butler

1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)
Slick fantasy. Now there's a new term for me. I discovered it is a sort of catch-all subgenre "usually in short-story form, which deals with such matters as Pacts with the Devil, Three Wishes, Identity Exchange, Answered Prayers, Little Shops of the Heart's Desire, etc." and were often published in the slick magazines as opposed to the pulps. This is one of the terms invented by John Clute and John Grant, the editors of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). Writers of slick fantasy include John Collier and Lord Dunsany and it is suggested that much of the work of  F. Anstey and Thorne Smith can also be included.

Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in "slick fantasy." I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.

Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of "Black Bart", an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias "Black Bart". After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart's stashed loot.

Extremely scarce paperback edition
Soon the estate is overrun with visitors and prospective buyers interested in the property. The weather turns nasty. Legend states that with the approach of thunderstorms comes the ghost of Sir Richard. The guests and two new owners prepare for ghostly visits by locking themselves up in their rooms. But the temptation of the jewels and money keep most of the guests busy by sneaking out. Much confusion and wackiness accompanied by slamming of doors, bedroom switches and women dressed in flimsy nighties ensues.

Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers' similar fault -- "drowning in words." In my first encounter reading Alexander as "Joan Butler" I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.

As for the "slick fantasy" element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say "The devil take you!" on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.

The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles -- Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 -- are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I'm hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.


  1. I've certainly never encountered this writer, but your great review made me think immediately of Carter Dickson's THE CAVALIER'S CUP. Similarly, the ghost doesn't show up (although the origin story is charming and well constructed) and, although the novel is meant to be comic, at least to this reader the humour was laboured and vulgar.

  2. Really interesting comment by Noah because I thought the same - well, rather the mixture of time travel and crime from FIRE BURN, maybe the third book by Carr that I ever read (and still a great one in my view). Thanks John, once again an author that was hitherto completely unknown to me (I say that a lot around here!)

  3. I wish I'd known the term "slick fantasy" when I worked at the bookstore. We had a hard time classifying Thorne Smith, and I would have loved to have proposed a sub-category! (We had some categories that were just about as niche.)

  4. Well, even though the book wasn't quite as entertaining as anticipated...that top cover is delightful. I think I'd want the book just for that (if I could find an edition with the dust jacket, that is).

    1. The DJs on the Butler books are knock outs -- so vibrant and colorful and loopy. Very reminiscent of the illustrations on the US edition DJs of P.G. Wodehouse's books published by Doubleday Doran in the 30s and 40s. I was certain there would be some similarity in the book content. Seemed like such a conscious choice to emulate that style of artwork to reflect what was inside the book. I'm going to read the other Butler books I own next month, but if his characters are once again verbose monologists I may not survive the trip, so to speak.