Friday, November 4, 2016

FFB: The Joss - Richard Marsh

THE STORY: Mary Blyth learns through unusual message delivery that her Uncle Benjamin has died and she is his sole heir. Part of her legacy is a dilapidated house in Camford street where she must take up residence and follow a series of odd instructions in order to preserve her inheritance and allowance of £488 per year. She must never allow any man to enter the house, she cannot leave until 9 AM and must be sure to return home no later than 9 PM, she must have one female companion as her sole roommate and no other visitors. But Mary is a feisty young woman and she'll have none of these restraints. She flaunts the rules and learns too late the errors of her ways.

THE CHARACTERS: Mary and her pal Emily Purvis are very similar to Maude and Flora who appear in Marsh's previously reviewed novel, The Goddess. Mary is another of the "New Women" who keep popping up in popular Edwardian fiction -- headstrong, rebellious, willful and not about to be intimidated by the inexplicable and fantastic events. Nor will she be governed by the "absurd conditions" her uncle outlined in his strange will. Emily who at first appears to be only a sidekick will take on the lead female role in the second book which she narrates. At first she seems like a younger Maude Juxon (from The Goddess) depicted in Mary's narrative as slightly dithery, full of startled exclamation, and playing up to traditional views of an easily intimidated and weak woman. Later when we see things from Emily's viewpoint we find that Mary -- who oddly has the nickname Pollie -- is not just willful but foolhardy, while Emily is the one with common sense and rightfully is cautious of the weird goings in at Camford street mansion. Emily also becomes the real damsel in distress by the midpoint of the book and the object of affection of one of the many male protagonists trying to find out if Benjamin Batters is still alive and at the root of all the unearthly manifestations.

There are two male characters who narrate the other sections of the novel. Franklin Paine, a typical Marsh hero, is a handsome young lawyer who first gives Mary the mix of good and bad news about her uncle and his dubious estate. Paine gives the reader a detailed background that clears up some of the mysteries about the several men pursuing Mary demanding she hand over the Great Joss and allow them access to the house. The fourth narrator is Captain Max Lander, a merchant seamen, whose section of the novel relates the backstory of where Uncle Benjamin went after he fled England, what happened to him in the South Pacific islands, and his bizarre transformation and later reversion.

ATMOSPHERE: This is more than one of those "girl gets a house" Gothic thrillers. It's almost a parody of the Gothic formula, but Marsh is so good at telling these types of luridly sensational stories that the absurdity of the situations never threatens to undermine the thrilling aspects of the book. This novel may not be as weird as The Beetle, Marsh's best selling blockbuster of the era and the book for which he will always be remembered, but it outperforms many of his other sensation thrillers when it comes to providing genuinely thrilling action sequences. This is practically a template for the Edwardian penny shocker.

INNOVATIONS: The subtitle of The Joss (1901) is "A Reversion" which implies a transformation takes place. We don't learn of one character's startling transformation until the final section in Book Four. When the reversion comes, however, it's something of a let down. A let down only because the reversion promised in the title ought to be just as shocking as all of the action that preceded the "blink and you'll miss it" moment that might be called the reversion. If the slang term "penny shocker" was ever well deserved of any book it is The Joss. Even in this modern age when a jaded reader like myself has become inured to anything that might be called shocking I was still taken aback at many of the unexpected touches that do indeed shock. It's just a shame that the reversion of the title is so mundane in comparison.

The more I read these "penny dreadfuls" of the past the more I marvel that so many of the conventions and plot gimmicks invented in days gone by are still being employed today. The Joss gives us a thrilling haunted house infested with rats and insects and equipped with magical locks, weird traps, and strange architecture; plucky heroines defying authority and disbelieving ghosts are at work; more ravenous rats than a Biblical plague or a sequel to Willard; a horde of exotic villains in pursuit of some MacGuffin they feel is of great value, and an entire section wherein the protagonists are abducted, tied up and subjected to grisly tortures. And that's just a sampling of the action packed 266 pages. These devices must have already been clich├ęs to Marsh and his contemporaries in 1901 yet he employs them with invigorating originality that can still raise an eyebrow or two more than one hundred years after he wrote them. When he wants to indulge himself he certainly never holds back. As an example -- what the villains use to gag their victims is one of the most unnerving sequences in the book. For that scene alone the book deserves being placed alongside better known 20th century horror classics both in print and on film.

QUOTES: "[Benjamin Batters] was no sailor. At least, so far as I know. But he was the most remarkable man who ever drew breath."

Emily: "Let's get out of this awful house. Do, Pollie do! The rats will eat us if we stay in it."
Mary: "Let 'em try. They'll find us tougher morsels than you think. If a rat has a taste of me he won't want another, I promise you that, my dear."

"There's a mystery behind that door. Mark my words, Emily Purvis! It may take the form of decaying corpses, with their brains dashed out, and their throats cut, and their bones all broken, in which case they'll haunt us while we slumber, pointing at us spectral fingers as we lie on our unquiet beds--"

More from the tough as nails Mary: "...if I'd known as much before as I do now, I'd have treated myself to a revolver. [...] I only wish that I had something loaded handy at this moment, there's more persuasive power in bullets than in your barricade, my dear."

I did not like the way she spoke to me at all. She might be a walking mystery -- and she certainly was -- but that was no reason why she should be impertinent as well.

I am aware that this is an age of muscularity, and that athletics do cause a woman to run to size. But, for my part, I like them little. [...] Miss Purvis was little. Not a dwarf, nor insignificant in any sense, but small enough.

I wish to set down nothing which suggests the marvellous [sic]. I have an inherent dislike of wonders, being without faith. When men speak of the inexplicable I think of trickery, and of some quality which is not perception.

I remembered to have read somewhere that you ought to know a man intimately for fifteen years before presuming to poke his fire. If that were the case the imagination failed to picture how long a man ought to be acquainted with a girl before venturing to try, with the aid of a pocket handkerchief, to dry her tears.

Franklin Paine: "I was afraid there wouldn't be another woman."
Emily: "Afraid! Women are ever so much more worse than men. And she's -- awful. She says she's the daughter of the gods."

THINGS I LEARNED: Not much unusual in terms of allusions or arcane vocabulary in this book. Marsh does manage to incorporate many quotes from Shakespeare plays, I've noticed, in his writing. He has a particular penchant for Macbeth, not surprisingly. In this book I spotted three Macbeth references including this one: "No sooner did they get a glimpse of me than they stood not upon the order of their going, but went at once."

The most interesting thing I uncovered was after reading the novel and looking up contemporary book reviews. In the Sept 18, 1901 issue of Punch I found a dismissive review of The Joss which calls the author Richard Marsh in one sentence and then Robert Marsh in the very next sentence. It also ends with this line: "Better re-read Wilkie Collins's Moonstone or Edgar Poe's Beetle." I can imagine that Poe's ghost would find it hilarious he was credited with writing a bestseller 48 years after he was put in his grave. But Marsh must've been livid!

EASY TO FIND? Yes, it is, gang! My copy is the 2007 reprint from praiseworthy Valancourt Books who have reissued many of Richard Marsh's novels and short story collections. The original UK edition apparently was printed only once and is extremely rare. There is only one copy for sale that I could find which looks to be in very nice condition and is offered at a whopping £400 or $513.


  1. You know how much I'm drawn to late Victorian/Edwardian lit, John; the weirder the better. You've sold me on this one... the Valancourt reissue, anyway.

    1. I had loads of notes on this one. Loved it! I'm sure you will too, Brian. Much better than The Goddess. Had the ending of The Joss been more powerful and imaginative it would displace The Beetle in my estimation as Marsh's best horror novel. He ought to be called the "Grandfather of Pulp Fiction". He really earns the title with this book alone.

      This was supposed to be my "Halloween Special, Part 2" post, but I got all wrapped up in some horror movies I watched at home. I can't write and watch a movie at the same time.

  2. So glad to hear this one is easy to find - I am totally sold. Thanks chum!

  3. Many thanks for the review! Richard Marsh's novels are abundant on the Internet Archive. His tone is lively and fresh. I am surprised by the heavy use of m-dash in century-old fiction. (And of course Emily Dickinson)

    1. What–! Seriously–? Surprise over eccentric punctuation in vintage fiction...? One of my favorite period oddities in this book is when a character resorts to very strong cursing and swearing the offending, non-printable words are replaced with the word "adjectives". Each and every time. Hysterical!