Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL, part 1: Dark Ways to Death - Peter Saxon

It may say #2 on the cover,
but this is definitely the first book.
There was a time when trash fiction was all I would read to entertain myself. I’m sure it was the logical progression for someone always interested in macabre and lurid stories. I drank up the goriest of the Grimm fairy tales as kid in grade school, moved on to horror movies then horror comics, and finally was lured by trash paperbacks sold in the spin racks still seen in the Woolworth’s of my 1970s teenage years. It’s rare I find myself dipping into the kind of thing that most people try to hide behind a newspaper when riding the bus or train, but here I go again. Dark Ways to Death (1968) was chosen for one of my many Halloween reads this year not because it’s trashy. That was just a coincidence. I knew it to be the first of the series featuring occult detectives The Guardians. Having introduced myself to the series a while ago (The Curse of Rathlaw) and enjoying its unusual use of arcane Celtic folklore, occult legends and genuine supernatural content I tracked down all the other books and planned on reading them in order. This first book is nothing like the other which I think is the penultimate book in the series.

I thought I was going to get a 1960s version of the Jules de Grandin novel The Devil’s Bride. Instead I get grotesque horror that outdoes anything Poe dreamt up, cruel sadism, graphic accounts of torture and rape, along with a heavy dose of Hammer horror movie influenced black magic and voodoo shenanigans. Oh! and let’s not forget the overly generous supply of blaxploitation and xenophobia put on display like that garish show of Christmas lights your neighbor down the street thinks is an expression of the holiday spirit. This is the nadir of Halloween reading, gang. Ready to wallow in it for a couple of paragraphs? Let’s go!

Dark Ways of Death begins with a bang and continues like a pistol packin' mama (or papa) trying to kick a meth habit. It’s a relentless story heavy on action and ghoulish incidents told episodically like a verbal comic strip. We meet the whole Guardians gang led by the mysterious Gideon Cross and his would be paramour Anne Ashby, both of whom seem to be the reincarnations of an ancient warlock and his witch lover. There is anthropology professor Stephen Kane serving as the ostensible leader though it is Gideon Cross who controls all the cases and oversees the investigations into the forces of darkness bent on wreaking havoc with the modern world...or at least the greater portion of London. Rounding out the five person team of ghostbusters and exorcists are Father John Dyball and Lionel Marks. What’s a battle against the powers of darkness without at least one person of the cloth armed with the Bible, loads of holy water, a consecrated host or two, and the law of God behind him? Lionel, on the other hand, is a private investigator and the only down to earth guy of the bunch. He's in it to make a honest buck…or rather British pound. For that extra added all-inclusive 60s vibe Lionel also serves as the token ethnic member of the Guardians. He's Jewish and we're constantly reminded of that for one reason or another as if "Peter Saxon" was reminding us that he's hip and not at all racist. The bad guys may be a West Indian voodoo cult of maniac killers but one of the good guys is a Jew. Take that, you decriers !

The crux of the plot is the rescue of a cat not a person and the whole thing just seems a self-parody of pulpy, occult-laden adventures for much of the book until two humans are put in peril. That's not to say the rescue of the hordes of caged cats isn't an admirably heroic effort (couldn't help but find an analogy to a similar scene in a Jonathan Stagge detective novel), but it's not the kind of thing that makes for gripping adult reading no matter how many stomach wrenching scenes of gore and horror are described. Inexplicably added for comic effect are scenes featuring of a cadre of thrill-seeking titled aristocrats who gatecrash, so to speak, the black magic rituals of the West Indian voodoo cult who perform their secret rites and sacrifices in the abandoned tunnels of the London underground. Inadvertently, one of the snobs manages to help rescue two of the Guardians with their inane antics by accidentally causing a blackout with perfect eleventh hour timing. My favorite lines came from the superficial Duchess of Derwentwater who says things like, "An orgy is an orgy is an orgy. Don't go all cynical and rational. How could anyone enjoy it if they thought it was just a game?" and who wants to report the voodoo revelers to the RSCPA for animal cruelty noticing only what's being done to the cat and somehow managing to overlook completely the obvious torture of the two victims before her eyes intended for human sacrifice. Ludicrous!

I know I’m making it sound like I loathed reading this book, but I didn’t. You can’t take this kind of book seriously. Ever. It’s a potboiler and it's meant to entertain and -- hopefully -- shock. Dark Ways to Death does what it's supposed to do even if it takes more than the halfway mark in its brief 143 pages to get to the genuinely thrilling moments with real human lives at stake, all of it imaginatively rendered and not without ample doses of occult lore and voodoo history dropped in to edify the ignorant masses.

Obviously, this is not literature at all. If you're a fan of this kind of stuff you get what you pay for and then some. But I say it's not worth your time or money in reading this debut unless you are really curious about the origins of the occult detective group or prefer your horror to be of the torture porn variety with an emphasis on perversity and cruelty rather than supernatural creatures and occult phenomenon.

The Guardian series definitely improves in the later volumes with the best told story coming in the last book, The Vampires of Finistere. That one will be reviewed very soon. Another "Halloween Special" review on a much more rewarding and spooky book will be posted on Halloween Day. A definite rave versus this middling book. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. The odds of me ever reading this one are a bit low admittedly but you do sell it very nicely! Now, 'Peter Saxon' was a house name, that much I know - I think this one was by Wilfred McNeill, that seem right to you John? Belatedly, Happy Halloween!

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