Friday, July 19, 2019

FFB: The Djinn - Graham Masterton

US reprint paperback, (Tor, 1982)
THE STORY: Not all genies come in bottles. Or djinns either. And not all of these supernatural beings are grateful to be freed from whatever container that imprisons them. The Djinn (1977) in this case is trapped in an ancient piece of pottery, a jar intricately designed with folkloric figures and is of great interest to a Middle Eastern antiquities consultant who would like it returned to Iran from where it was illegally procured. Now the jar is in a sealed room in the home of Max Greaves, a deceased oil tycoon, and his widow and her companion want no one going anywhere near it. Enter Harry Erskine, Greaves’ godson, whose trade is fortune telling and whose curiosity gets the better of him when it comes to the jar and its mysterious contents.

THE CHARACTERS: Harry Erskine is an interesting addition to the collection of occult detectives in supernatural fiction. He’s not a legitimate clairvoyant by any means. He’s nothing more than an opportunistic con artist. Sure he’s taken the trouble to learn the ropes with cartomancy (both tarot and regular playing cards), the Ouija board and, on occasion, reading tea leaves and gazing into a crystal ball, but he has no real powers at all. No talent other than sarcastic banter and bad puns which are very welcome in the otherwise histrionic and often gruesome novel The Djinn.
Erskine stars in one of the more original horror novels to float to the surface of the flood of 1970s supernatural mass market fiction that deluged bookstores following the success of huge bestselling books like The Exorcist and The Other. In fact the marketing team at Pinnacle Books in an effort to attract the insatiable horror crowd liken The Djinn to successful horror works like The Omen and ‘Salem’s Lot neither of which remotely resemble what you find in Graham Masterton’s unusual book. Masterton was never interested in vampires or your standard evil child possessed by the devil or even the offspring of Lucifer. He was more like a 1970s version of Abraham Merritt who penned a handful of horror classics drawing from forgotten ancient cultures and their mythology and folklore. The Djinn is a crash course in all things ancient Persia and the lore of demonic djinns.

UK 1st paperback, (Star, 1977)
Harry teams up with Anna Modena, the antiquities consultant and “America’s foremost expert in ancient folklore and Middle Eastern culture” Professor Gordon Qualt. Together the three combine their knowledge about djinns, night clocks, and the evil sorcerer Ali Babah and do their best to prevent calamity falling upon southern Massachusetts. They have their work cut out for them when they learn that widow Marjorie Greaves seems to have been overtaken by some other-worldly entity and Marjorie’s mousy subservient companion Miss Johnson starts to show an unnatural interest in the jar and what lies inside.

Anna and Qualt remind me of the occult experts you’d encounter in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. The two of them are founts of endless information and both seem to be illogical in their obsession to get at the jar and the djinn inside. Ann more than Qualt is determined to rescue the jar as an ancient work of art. It happens to be decorated with intricate drawings of a mythological horse that has no eyes, the only known remaining illustrative example in the modern world of this particular Persian figure. Qualt astounds Erskine (and the reader) with the true story of “Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves”, which turn out not to be a group of thugs robbing gemstones for their ringleader but a sorcerer and his demon servant. The “forty thieves” are a metaphorical explanation for the two score entities the nasty demon can manifest before it completely possesses a human by stealing its face then inhabiting its body. A surprise is in store when the three demon fighters must contend with Miss Johnson who has a bizarre story of vengeance dating back centuries, one that rivals anything the MeToo movement could ever envision in payback for monstrous sexual assault. And in this case it is both literally and figuratively a monstrous assault. Read the book for the gory details, I’m not going there at all.

UK limited edition reprint - (Telos, 2010)
INNOVATIONS: Whether Masterton researched his story of Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves or he made it up entirely out of his twisted imagination there is no denying that his metaphorical reworking of a well-known Arabian Nights story is ingeniously diabolical. Additionally he seems to have invented a Persian tool of sorcery called a night clock that allows a black magic practitioner to commune with the powers of the moon and summon beings from another dimension. No rubbing lamps and wishing for riches and success in this story. The dead seem to walk, faceless zombies appear from the shadows, all in service of an age old vow of revenge. The Djinn is teeming with a wealth of unusually imaginative supernatural gadgets, lore and incantations making it all the more fascinating for readers who crave genuine supernatural content in their horror novels.

Interestingly, embedded within all the arcane lore, ancient mythology, black magic, demonic possession and manifestations is a bit of a detective story. There is a mystery surrounding Max Greaves' cause of death and why he disfigured himself. Quite by accident another mystery is solved pertaining to the identity of a sinister robed figure that keeps appearing on the grounds of the Greaves estate, Winter Sails.

Masterton is Scottish but nearly all of his books are set in America and feature almost exclusively American characters. One of his greatest talents is his talent for duplicating American syntax in his character’s speech. His dialogue is spot on and his ear for American speech rhythm, slang and colloquialisms is uncanny. More than any other non-US writer Masterton is the king of American dialogue writing.

Inside cover of US 1st edition,
(Pinnacle, 1977) 
QUOTES: Masterton has a lot of fun with Erskine’s irreverent sense of humor. He has mentioned in interviews the necessity for humor in horror novels and can’t abide writing them without someone cracking jokes or uttering a ridiculous pun. Here’s a typical sequence:

Anna: "Professor Qualt was in the newspapers not long ago when they turned up that marble smuggling racket out of Iraq. He’s very keen on keeping treasures in the environment where they were originally created."

Harry: ":I agree with him. I hate to see people losing their marbles."

THE AUTHOR: Graham Masterton was one of the leading horror novelists of the 1970s and continues to thrill readers with his ingenuity and innovative storytelling today. He began his career as an editor at Penthouse and his first book was not fiction but one of the most successful sex manuals of all time -- How To Drive Your Man Wild in Bed (1976). He’s written in all popular fiction genres, written for adults, children and teens, and continues to publish at least one new book every year for the past forty years -- in some cases as many as four books in a year. He has recently turned to crime fiction and thrillers and has created at least two series characters. For more on Masterton and his work visit his website.

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