Thursday, March 3, 2016

FFB: The Empty House - Irina Karlova

The last time I wrote about a book by Irina Karlova (Dreadful Hollow, reviewed here) I talked about its preposterous vampire plot and the unintentional self-parody that resulted from her overly serious attempt to capture the spirit of an old fashioned Gothic   thriller while retelling the plot of a couple of Universal horror movies. I wasn’t sure she would deliver in her second book – the very rare The Empty House (1944) – a copy of which I serendipitously uncovered through the miracle of want lists. She did not disappoint.

The Empty House is just as creaky as Karlova's debut in its imitation of the lurid 18th century novels of Regina Maria Roche, Francis Lathom, and Eliza Parsons. She also manages to outdo herself in delivering a battalion of clichés resulting in what I like to call the "Icy Fear” school of writing. Yes, it runs through the heroine's veins. It not only runs through her veins it practically races down the street chasing after a catalog of synonyms for "eerie" accompanied by miasmas of fog, lightning that illuminates the street and flickering candles used anytime someone has to explore the two -- count 'em, two -- creepy cellars. It's 1944, by the way, not 1786. No mention of the war, no mention of the blackout, no mention of the bombings in London. Still... Doesn't anyone have a damn flashlight?

Her penchant for using two dollar words and obsolete adjectives when plain old English will suffice only serves to undermine the intended atmospheric touches. She prefers abashed instead of embarrassed, benignant instead of benign. She relies heavily on pet phrases, too. "Cheek by jowl" occurs over twenty times throughout the book. The police inspector uses the term “sanguinary stains” when talking to his sergeant at a crime scene. More than once. "Come on, Irina!" I screamed at the book. "Policemen do not talk like that." I doubt they ever did even in the late 1700s when the Gothic novel flourished.

Amid all the eccentric vocabulary choices, outmoded syntax, derivative plot motifs and outright borrowing of other writer's stories Karlova (aka Helen Clamp) has only one true innovation. Clamp blends psychic phenomena and reincarnation with a case of dissociative personality disorder and creates one genuine mystery of identity and real versus imagined events that are not fully explained until the final pages.

Yet she undermines the entire construct of her novel before the first paragraph starts. For some reason Clamp adds an author note at the start of the book that gives away something that should have been left as a penultimate surprise. That ought to tell you how inept she is at constructing a "Spine-Chiller" that ought to shock, or at least surprise, the reader with unexpected plot twists. I'll attempt to be concise in my summary of the insane story and will most likely spoil a lot in the telling. You may want to skip down to the "Things I Learned" section. But the book is so rare you'll probably never find a copy in your lifetime. Took me close to fifteen years to find this one.

Ready? Here we go…

Catherine Lee has stumbled upon a gruesome murder and is fleeing the scene in a fog ridden street. A gold match case has been shoved into her hand by the dying man who gasps out these final phrases “For God's sake -- take it -- It's murdered me!  give -- police" just before shuffling off this mortal coil. She seeks shelter in the closest house and the Professor who lives there convinces her to stay with him lest she be thought responsible for the crime. Her hands are bloodstained and Clamp has the Professor say, "You have been caught red handed, my dear" and he actually giggles. Her only options, he tells her, are these: 1. Leave and you’ll surely be arrested and hanged for murder or 2. Stay here and I can shelter you and turn you into a beauty. Because she is a ninny of a heroine she believes these are her only two choices and decides to stay. This is her first of many foolish decisions.

Lionel Atwill and friend from
The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
The professor is actually a famed Austrian wax sculptor who lost his mind years ago and turned into a homicidal maniac. His house is filled with "startlingly lifelike" wax figures that "keep [him] company." (One guess as to what they really are.) He makes her a wax mask that transforms her into a beauty and either due to a weird magical chemical bath he immerses the mask into or through hypnosis, or a combination of both, he gets her to believe she is a completely different person while wearing the mask. He calls her Lilith and she soon is switching on and off between these two personas like the atmospheric lightning strikes that occur every ten pages or so. Later, we learn that she is re-enacting the life of Lucretia Borgia, one of the many wax figures in the Professor's long destroyed traveling Chamber of Horrors.

As if a mad scientist/wax sculptor and reincarnation via hypnosis or chemicals or whatever wasn't enough over-the-top plotting Catherine also has a gift for psychic time traveling. She is able to feel the presence of evil and past events and manages to either conjure up the events and relive them or travel back to when the events took place. It’s really not made clear and it’s poorly explained in the final pages by Sir Marcus Syme, the requisite brilliant psychiatrist who “cures” Catherine/Lilith/Lucretia and makes her whole again.

There’s a lot more to this -- murder, abduction, assumed identities, asylum escapes, and the mysterious empty and boarded up house that gives the book its title -- but I’ll spare you all that. Frankly, it’s a mess of a plot so crammed full of horror movie trappings and Gothic excess it was a bit too much even for me. Added to the over-the-top fantasy and supernatural elements is the continual shift in the action between the past and the present. I never knew where I was, what really happened, what was imagined, who was a ghost, who was real, or whatever.

While Dracula served as her template for Dreadful Hollow Clamp chose to pilfer from many sources for her second supernatural “spine-chiller”. She has crammed as much as she can into its brief 167 pages with references to both books and movie scripts, uses every hoary cliché from Gothic writers and pulp magazine fictioneers, and throws in an ample helping of pop psychology circa 1944 no doubt picked up from the magazine racks and Hollywood screenwriters of the era. There are allusions to Bulwer-Lytton’s “The House and the Brain”, Mrs. Danvers, Igor in the Frankenstein movies, as well as blatant "borrowing" of the plots of The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Lost Horizon, The Old Dark House, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and every lurid thriller featuring a gorilla on a rampage made between 1930 and 1943. She tosses everything she can into her blender, turns it on high speed and comes up with a heady potent cocktail guaranteed to give you a nasty hangover.

The killer bears a striking resemblance
to Lord Byron...with very hairy arms
As was the case with Dreadful Hollow the plot twists in The Empty House fall flat because they are so easily predicted. No one could possibly be shocked by the italicized sentences Clamp employs to jolt the reader. Even if there were no drawing of a gorilla on the DJ all her straightforward descriptions of a hairy armed beast with fifteen inch non-human footprints can only mean one thing. The dull policeman in the case, however, clearly has never been to the movies or read Poe. At the halfway mark in the book, and thirty pages after he has been told by a forensic expert that some reddish black tufts of hair found in the gold match case belong to an “anthropoid ape” Inspector Gregory wisely starts to talk about the famous Poe story. Then he muses, "I wonder if in this modern case these mysterious crimes can be traced to a creature whose logic and reasoning powers are sub-human, showing merely a brute ferocity..."

Clamp tries hard to misdirect the reader with this statement and later descriptions of the hairy beast. Could the human villain who looks like Lord Byron and the phantom ape be one and the same? She hints at this throughout the story. I was hoping it would be the first instance of a were-ape in supernatural fiction. No such luck. I have no problem spoiling the fact that the gorilla wears a wax mask of a gorgeous Lord Byron look-alike that makes everyone believe that there is a half human/half ape kidnapping and killing people. "Wait!" (I hear you exclaim.)  "A gorilla manages to keep a wax mask on its face and not rip it to pieces?" Well, my friends, this is one very well trained ape. And those masks are genuine works of art with some sort of chemical magic mixed in. Plus, the ape did come from a traveling circus. Yes, he's a performing gorilla. You gotta love Irina Karlova for her chutzpah.

THINGS I LEARNED
1. Clamp used the phrase "prunes and prisms" to describe the entire Victorian era. I had never heard this before. Apparently, it was invented by Charles Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit which features a pretentious guardian named Hortensia General who tries to teach the heroine to speak properly by forming her lips around several words that start with P. Two of the words are prune and prism.  The phrase "prunes and prisms" later was adopted to refer to affected, primly precise speech and behavior.  There are mutliple citations in annotated dictionaries showing its use throughout the Victoran era and well into the mid twentieth century. This is the first time I have ever encountered the phrase in anything I've read.

2. The retina image nonsense is used in this book!  I couldn't believe that a police officer seriously considered this as forensic evidence in a book published in 1944. He takes a picture of "the retina and the brain", develops the photograph and sees the last image seen by a murder victim. And it's the face of Lord Byron! As if the performing gorilla wasn't enough she threw that into the works. I literally burst out laughing.

3. More stuff about eyes. Her long Kalmuk eyes glanced his way for a fleeting instant. That sentence occurs on page 36 and I hadn't a clue what it meant.  So I headed to my smart phone and did an internet search. Kalmuk is a variant spelling of Kalmyk, a forgotten group of Asian people also known as Oirats, whose ancestors came from Mongolia and settled in an region now a federal state of Russia called Kalmykia.  I'm guessing Kalmuk eyes is an esoteric and "non-racist" way to say someone had "almond eyes", a very popular term used to describe Asian women in genre fiction back in the day. Even if she recycled other writers' plots at least Clamp found new ways to be offensive.

I so much wanted to like this book, but now that I’ve completed the trio of novels by “Irina Karlova” it is overwhelmingly clear to me why she was not reprinted and has fallen into the limbo of forgotten books. Every now and then there are books I heartily recommend you avoid and not bother searching for. Ever. This is one of them. Farewell, Irina. It was a fun fifteen years looking for your books. Onward and upward!

[Many thanks to fellow obscure mystery fiction aficionado Darrell, way up in Saskatoon, for the scan of the ultra rare DJ. My copy, sadly, is a naked one.]

4 comments:

  1. Wait, you're not recommending this? Must say, John, everything you've written makes me want to read it. That "heady potent cocktail" is sure to be bad for the health - aren't they all? - but it promises such fun! Well worth the hangover.

    You had me in stitches. My image of Byron is forever changed... perhaps that is the downside.

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    1. This one was fun to write about even if I thought it was a stinker. The ending ruined all the surreal and absurd moments. Though much of it relies on fantasy I still can't make sense of it all. Shouldn't it have an internal logic? Maybe it isn't supposed to make sense. Wish it had been a were-ape. That would've made the book an alternative classic masterpiece.

      Say the word and I'll loan you my copy. Free shipping always with my "lending library" service. ;^)

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  2. Great post chum, but this is one that I shall not worry about trying to retrieve!

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  3. Surprisingly I enjoyed this one because I usually hate mysteries with "alternative" plotting--and this was a book where at one point I was considering whether brain and body substitutions were going to be part of the story! However I'm sure my generosity would have greatly challenged had I actually bought the book...

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