Saturday, October 31, 2020

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Jules de Grandin Stories - Seabury Quinn

Jules de Grandin may not have been the first occult detective in weird and supernatural fiction but he will always be the original Night Stalker to me.  Around the time that cult TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker was airing in the 1970s a series of paperback books appeared in my local Woolworth's on the paperback racks I used to regularly pore over. The garishly colorful covers with bizarre creatures and titles like The Horror Chamber of Jules de Grandin and The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin were perfect lures for my teenage eyes.  I eagerly bought them all over a period of three or four months that summer.  In them I was introduced to the small but fierce French physician who battled every possible evil creature imaginable and did it all almost entirely in a fictional town in New Jersey.  Of all places - New Jersey!  The only state in the USA that was the butt of jokes of every stand-up comic and episode of Laugh-In during the 1970s.  But from the pen of Seabury Quinn Harrisonville, New Jersey was one of the most terrifying places you would ever want to visit.  A town overrun with vampires, werewolves, reincarnated Egyptian mummies, worshippers of Satan, and myriad evildoers obsessed with immortality and willing to make bargains with any demonic being they could summon and not unwilling to kidnap, steal or murder in the process. Not all the tales took place in New Jersey, but the bulk of the stories that appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 through 1951 did.  I devoured these stories in the six paperback volumes thinking that that was all I could get my hands on.  Now all 92 Jules de Grandin supernatural stories as well as the single novel featuring the occult detective, The Devil's Bride, are available to devotees of pulpy horror in a five volume set. Each volume runs close to 500 pages and there are dozens of tales I'd never heard of or read before.

As George Vanderburgh, owner of the indie press Battered Silicon Dispatch and a Sherlockian of some note, and Robert Weinberg, that renowned collector of mystery and supernatural books and Weird Tales maven extraordinaire, remind us in the detail rich introduction to each volume Seabury Quinn is not the most famous of Weird Tales writers.  But Jules de Grandin, his engaging intelligent and extremely knowledgeable occult detective, was definitely one of the most popular characters among the readers of the magazine. From de Grandin's first appearance in "The Horror on the Links" in 1925 the Frenchman known for his frequent bizarre exclamations like "Barbe d'un chameau!" or "Larmes d'un poisson!" was an instant hit.  Readers demanded more stories from Quinn and the publisher. Every year de Grandin tales made the "best of " lists and were frequently reprinted in later issues.  It's not hard to see why for Jules and his physician sidekick Dr. Samuel Trowbridge are truly likeable and heroic in the manner that the best of pulp fiction characters always are.

Short in stature, athletic in build, blond, bearded, a speaker of several languages de Grandin is like a mix of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and John Silence, all characters he must have been modeled on.  Well, perhaps not so much Poirot for he was only five years old when the first of the de Grandin adventures was published.  But surely Holmes, Silence and perhaps Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson's other well known occult detective might have been Quinn's source as Weinberg and Vanderburgh tell us in their introduction. Letters pored in from readers analyzing the stories, praising and critiquing Quinn's imagination. A cult grew around the character.  As the two men describe the popularity and the phenomenon of de Grandin he began to take on a life and legend similar to Holmes. They write in their intro: "Readers smitten by how believable de Grandin seemed as a character wrote to Weird Tales asked if he was a person in real life."

There is not enough room here to describe all of the stories and I have no way near finished even the first two volumes. At random I selected stories that I haven't read based merely on length (avoiding those over 25 pages in order to read as many as I could in two weeks) and also I was lured by those with odd titles. Vanderburgh and Weinberg's intro also whetted my appetite by pointing out the more grisly and horrific of the stories.  I was drawn mostly to Quinn's fascination with Eastern mythology and religions and his penchant for pitting de Grandin against creatures less well known in the lore of the supernatural. Here is a modest sampling of the strange and fantastic adventures of the French physician turned occult detective. Each tale's first appearance in is in parentheses.

"The Horror on the Links" - The life of the idle rich at a golf country club is no party when an ape-like creature kills a woman and pursues another. Shades of Poe's Rue Morgue and Well's Dr. Moreau meld in a story of revenge and diabolical experiments. (Oct 1925)

"The Isle of Missing Ships" - More of a pirate adventure than an occult detective story it foreshadows Indiana Jones' derring do. Jules Verne set pieces also crop up in this story of a self-proclaimed god who calls himself Goonong Besar and rules an island in the South Pacific populated with the usual cannibalistic inhabitants armed with poison arrows. Seemingly filled with silent movie clichés from its maze-like underground fortress to the scenes of captives tied to stakes being cooked for dinner. Tiresome, not thrilling nor original in the least. My least favorite story of those I selected. (Feb 1926)

"Ancient Fires" - Haunted house, ghost of an Indian princess and reincarnation. Nicely done, but very familiar to anyone who has read a lot of these types of tales. Margery Lawrence handles reincarnation and lost love in her Miles Pennoyer stories better than Quinn. (Sept 1926)

"The Grinning Mummy" - What's an occult detective series without a smattering of Egyptology and a vengeful mummy? Incomplete, that's what. Here's the requisite angry mummified corpse on the rampage.  De Grandin is in fine form acting as a true detective in this outing. It's genuinely thrilling. Jules' habit of bizarre French exclamations adds "Nom d'un porc!" and "Dieu et le diable!" to his ever growing list. (Dec 1926)

"The Gods of East and West" - Jules enlists the help of a medicine man of the Dakotahs to help save Idoline Chetwynde (love that name!) from the grip of a spell cast by the malevolent goddess Kali. Only one bizarre French expression ("Nom d'une anguille!") but the action filled tale, the spells and rites and originality more than make up for the lack of odd vocabulary. A good one! (Jan 1928)

"The Serpent Woman"  - Jules and Dr. Trowbridge prevent a woman 's suicide then hear her story of being accused of her child's murder.  She claims he was not killed but stolen in the night. However, there is no sign of anyone having entered her home.  An impossible kidnapping!  This is one of the rare genuine detective stories in the de Grandin canon. The title of course reveals the culprit, but the discovery of who she is, how and why she accomplishes her misdeeds makes for gripping and entertaining reading. It even makes use of a genuinely surprising reveal. Added bonus: Quinn incorporates the Jersey Devil legend, probably its earliest fictional appearance. (June 1928)

"The Devil's Rosary" - A curse has befallen the Arkwright family. Nearly every one of them has died a violent death and at the site of each death a small red bead is found.  Haroldine Arkwright has found a red bead in her purse and is terrified she will be the next to die. Jules and Dr Trowbridge investigate and uncover another supernaturally enforced vendetta this time at the hands of victimized Tibetan monks. One of the more original stories making use of Quinn's fascination with Eastern religion and mysticism. (Apr 1929)

The five volumes that make up The Complete Tales of Jules De Grandin are published by Night Shade Books.  Each hefty tome is available through the usual bookselling websites in both new and used copies.  The most recent volume, Black Moon (vol 5), was released in March 2019. I still have three more volumes to acquire and with all the other books I have in my mountainous TBR piles I may never finish reading the entire collection.

Seabury Quin wrote pulp fiction in its purest form. It's text book pulp, a quintessential example of early 20th century American popular storytelling and genre fiction. As such these are far from great literature but that doesn't make them any less entertaining. You need to enter the world of Jules de Grandin prepared for not only over-the-top action and melodrama, but xenophobic comments and a generous supply of ultra un-PC descriptions of "foreigners".  But I am never one to be repelled by these sins of the past.  Horror stories and movies from every era are replete with similar embarrassing and shameful depictions. It's the imaginative storytelling that will get me all the time. And I'm a sucker for learning new mythology, superstition and ancient rites. The de Grandin stories are chock full of that too and to me that's what makes them worth reading.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: The Half Pint Flask - DuBose Heyward

"Strange the obsession that an imaginative woman can exercise over an unimaginative man.  It the sort of thing that can follow a chap to his grave."

 One of the more unusual offshoots of collecting supernatural fiction is hunting for the numerous editions of one short story or novella published as a single volume. Lovecraft's The Shunned House, the horror author's first work to be published in book form, is such a volume. Not so elusive as it used to be, but exorbitantly expensive should you find a copy in an antiquarian bookshop. There are other more readily obtained books and much more affordable and often much more interesting as both entertainingly creepy genre fiction as well as well written literature. The Half Pint Flask by DuBose Heyward belongs to this other category. I recently re-read it for our monthly "Friday Fright Night" meme hosted by Curt Evans and a found it to be as chilling and evocative as I did when I first read over twenty years ago.

The book itself was handsomely produced in both a limited numbered and signed edition as well as a trade edition. Both editions are fully illustrated with three full page black and white line drawings by Joseph Sanford as well as head and tail pieces and numerous vignettes. Of the two editions the latter is much easier to find but not so easy to find with its exceptionally scarce dust jacket (see photo above, courtesy of Eureka Books in California).  I only learned of the fine binding in a limited and numbered edition when I went looking for the first edition dust jacket. My copy is a serviceable reading copy, jacketless with rather worn boards but with pristine pages inside.  It was very cheap when I bought it two decades ago and you'll be hard pressed to find a copy without jacket for under $25 these days.

The story is a fable of sorts teaching a lesson about respect for the dead, the sacred nature of cemeteries and ultimately a cautionary tale to greedy collectors of curios and objets d'art. DuBose Heyward, an expert on his home state of South Carolina and its native Gullah community, incorporates African legends and mythology, Black American superstition and funereal rituals, a tinge of witchcraft, and one appearance of a ghost. Its 55 pages tell a tale of collector's mania, desecration of a grave site, covetousness of a rare antique glass flask, and retribution from the ethereal world. The sections on African mythology and religious rites that mix with a suggestion of black magic are eye opening and rendered with a flair for authenticity without ever seeming sensational or lurid. Heyward had deep respect for the Black community of his home state and was fascinated with the Gullah culture, its language and customs. The reader learns quite a bit about the Gullah world in the telling of his tale.

The Half Pint Flask (1929) is narrated by Mr. Courtney, a writer of fiction, who plays host to Barksdale, a would-be anthropologist who has traveled to Ediwander Island in South Carolina Gullah country to write a "series of articles on Negroid Primates."  The term annoys and angers local Courtney who describes Barksdale's demeanor and tone: "Uttered in that cold and dissecting voice, [the phrase] seemed to strip the human from the hundred or more Negroes who were my only company..."  Courtney goes on to explain that the local Blacks are descended from the slaves who worked the largest rice plantation in South Carolina and that their isolation may seem have kept them "primitive enough."  This provides even more incentive for for Barksdale's impending research.

On route to their lodgings the two men pass by a cemetery reserved for burying the Blacks. The gravesites are covered with "a strange litter of medicine bottles, tin spoons, and other futle weapons that had failed in the final engagement with the last dark enemy."  Barksdale has the eagle eye of a manic collector and he immediately spots a treasure.  We learn he is a collector of antique glass, in particular a rare type of glassware found only in South Carolina. He orders the carriage to stop and races to the gravesite where he plucks the glass flasks from the mound and brings it back with him.  

"Do you know what this is?" he demanded, then rushed triumphantly with his answer; "It's a first issue, half pint flask of the old South Carolina state dispensary. It gives me the only complete set in existence. No another one in America."

Courtney warns his fellow writer that he ought not to mess with the graves of the local Blacks.  The objects placed on the graves are as sacred to them as the remains they protect. He pleads with him to put it back immediately.  But Barksdale will not hear him, dismissing all his warnings as superstition and nonsense. He assures Courtney he will offer a good sum to whoever placed the flask on the grave. Unfortunately, he never follows through with that empty promise. It is his undoing.

The rest of the story details the aftermath of Barksdale's rash act and disregard for the traditions and beliefs of the locals.  Eerie sounds and thundering seem to descend upon the house where he and Courtney are staying. The droning and weird vibrations that infect the household cause insomnia and headaches. Drumming and singing, strange chants fill the night air:

I have always had a passion for moonlight and I stood long on the piazza watching the great disc change from its horizon copper to gold, then cool to silver as it swung up into the immeasurable tranquility of the southern night. At first I thought the Negroes must be having a dance, for I could hear the syncopation of sticks on a cabin floor, and the palmettos and moss-draped live oaks that grew about the buildings could be seen the full quarter of a mile away, a ruddy bronze against the sky from a brush fire. But the longer I waited listening the less sure I became about the nature of the celebration. The rhythm became strange, complicated; and the chanting that rose and fell with the drumming rang with a new compelling quality, and lacked entirely the abandon of dancers.
That night Courtney beholds the vision of Plat-eye, a legendary figure of the Black community based on a African god of vengeance. "Plat-eye is a spirit which takes some form which will be particularly apt to lure its victims away," Courtney has earlier explained to Barksdale. It is clearly a foreshadowing of the climax of the book.

And Barksdale himself becomes a haunted man in the worst way. His mania for glass has turned a fascination into a curse. His flouting of the very subject of his writing which is filled with facts about the "deeply religious nature of the American Negro" results in a deadly lesson for the fatuous writer and puts an end to his collecting and studying for good.

DuBose Heyward, 1929
(photo by Ben Pinchot for Vanity Fair)

DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina and spent much of his writing career exploring the lives and culture of the Black people of his hometown and state.  Author of poetry, short stories, plays and novels his name nor face might not be familiar to most readers but certainly his one work should be remembered by many.  In 1925 he wrote Porgy, a novel of the tragic life of its disabled Black hero and his love for a woman being abused and dominated by a local criminal. Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, a frequent writing collaborator, turned the novel into a stage play which had a successful run on Broadway in the 1927-28 season. George Gershwin saw the play and approached Heyward with the hope of turning the play into an opera. That collaboration along with Gershwin's lyricist brother Ira gave us Porgy and Bess, the first American operatic work to have a cast of exclusively Black performers.  Since its first performance in 1935 the opera has been revived on Broadway seven times over a span of nine decades its most recent Tony award winning production ran for  between 2011 and 2012. The opera was also adapted into a movie musical in 1959 starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr.  Heyward also is known for his novel Mamba's Daughters, also adapted for the stage with his wife.

 

Friday, October 16, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: London After Midnight - Marie Coolidge-Rask

London After Midnight
– the stuff of legends. For those of you not in the know let me fill you in. It’s one of those “lost films” from the silent era, meaning that no known prints exist today. The negative was destroyed in a warehouse fire back in the 1960s. The hunt continues for anyone on the planet who might have a copy of the movie. Interest in this supposed horror movie – one of many from Tod Browning, the child of the night who gave us macabre silent movies like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), the notorious circus thriller Freaks (1932), and the first movie version of Dracula (1930) – was so obsessive that back in 2002 a movie maven “reconstructed” the film using photo stills and a copy of the screenplay. I’ve never seen it, it’s been called everything from "a brilliant video evocation" to "a huge waste of time and energy." All this leads me to my own fascination with the movie. I had hoped one day I would see it after learning about it in a book on movie monsters I read when I was about 13 years old. But later around my college years when I discovered its legendary status as a lost film I all but gave up hope. Then sometime around 1999 or 2000 I stumbled upon a copy of the Photoplay Edition of London After Midnight through sheer serendipity at an antique mall.

Photoplay Editions of silent movies are considered collector’s items to the cognoscenti who are drawn to books adapted for the movies. Photoplay Editions are the actual novels the movies were based on or novelizations of movie screenplays that contain photo stills of the movie. A select few of these Photoplay Editions are considered crown jewel of sorts to bibliophiles and movieholics. London After Midnight is one of them. Of course finding a Photoplay Edition with the remarkable color photo dust jackets would make it even more of a treasure. Mine is unsurprisingly lacking the dust jacket. But all of the eight photographs are intact and unharmed.

All this brings me to the actual book and story of London After Midnight. Marie Coolidge Rask, working from Tod Browning’s screen story and the scenario of Browning's frequent co-collaborator Waldemar Young, penned the novelization of the movie. This is all we have to go by as to the film’s story and content. That and, of course, the myriad movie stills that have been reproduced for decades. Some of the eight stills from the Photoplay Edition are featured as illustrations for this post. I was hoping for an eerie tale of madness, murder and vampires and a few good frights. After all Lon Chaney, the Man of 1000 Faces, was the star of the movie. He was terrifying as the first screen Phantom of the Opera and still, IMO, the best non-singing performer in that role. Based on photos in the book he played two roles in the movie. But as is the case with many of these longed for reading experiences that finally come to fruition reading the story was a huge let down. London After Midnight – at least the novelized version of the story – is a messy and transparent murder mystery couched in Gothic excesses and weird or supernatural incidents that all turn out to be rationalized.

Ingredients: one haunted house, a suspicious suicide, a murder made to look like the work of a vampire, two creepy and kooky neighbors who put on a spook show for the police investigating the murder, a plethora of mysterious incidents and a ridiculous number of characters in disguise or using alter egos. It all reminded me of early 20th century French detective novels with their fascination with policemen in disguise and fantastical plot elements. Browning who concocted the story may well have been a fan of not only Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe but Maurice LeBlanc, Gaston Leroux and Marcel Allain, creator of master criminal Fantomas, the English translations of those books were still selling well in the US in the late 1920s.

 

Pictured left to right: Conrad Nagel as Lucy's lover Jerry Hibbs,
Henry A. Walthall as Sir James and Lon Chaney in his
second role as Prof. Burke(called Colonel Yates in the novelization)


Chaney as the Man in the Beaver Hat

Much of the novel’s mystery involves uncovering the identity of the Man in the Beaver Hat and his sidekick an unnamed female character referred to only as the Bat Girl. We are led to believe that they are vampires, that they can transform into bats which fly about the rooms of Balfour House and roost in the rafters of that reputedly haunted house. Five year sago Balfour House was the site of the suicide of its former owner, Roger Balfour who may be the Man in the Beaver Hat come back to life in the form of a vampire. How else could his name in his exact handwriting appear on a new lease for Balfour House when only the Man in the Beaver Hat signed the contract?

And what of the mysterious appearance of Colonel Yates, straight from India, who claims to be a former military comrade of Sir James Hamlin, the ward of Lucy Balfour, Roger’s beautiful daughter? Why did the Colonel show up so conveniently just as the Balfour House was leased by the Man in the Beaver Hat? Why does Yate know so much about the occult, and vampires in particular?

Rask's storytelling is modeled on a cumbersome Edwardian prose style infused with stilted dialogue, overly complex sentence structure, antiquated vocabulary, and an abundance of histrionics and melodrama. She gives away the fact that the suicide is a murder almost immediately and is clumsy in trying to create suspense and surprise revelations. It is very obvious from the start who killed Roger Balfour and his son Harry. Even the motive is obvious. And that perhaps is the creepiest part of the book. In the book’s denouement the killer has been hypnotized into recreating the Roger Balfour's murder. Reading the killer’s pronouncement of his love for a 15 year-old girl and his “covetousness of her since she was an infant" was nauseating and gave me chills in a manner completely unintended by the writer. Not exactly the kind of thing that reads well at all in the 21st century.

For those readers who absolutely must read London After Midnight to have their curiosity satisfied you are in luck. Couch Pumpkin Classics, a POD outfit, released a reprint of this Photoplay Edition in both paperback and Kindle digital versions. A hardcover is also available in the used book market for a hefty price. I know nothing about Couch Pumpkin's other works (if there are any), but this reprint does contain an informative introduction outlining the history of the movie’s legendary status as a lost film and goes into greater detail about the “reconstruction” of the movie done in 2002 for Turner Movie Classics. But be warned: the story is less than thrilling, a tepid variation of a Scooby-Doo cartoon plot, and I guarantee major disappointment. Better to look at the stills and let your own imagination conjure up your own private version of a fine example of macabre moviemaking with genuine frights and thrills.

Next week’s Friday Fright Night episode will be a vast improvement on this offering.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: Lucifer and the Child - Ethel Mannin

From its first sentence (“On the 18th March, 1618, Margaret and Philippa Flower were burnt at the stake…for witchcraft.”) Lucifer and the Child (1945) sets up what ostensibly will be a novel of witchcraft, black magic and the evolution of a child cursed by her afflicted past. The title is deceptive. True there is a man with horns, there is a child, there is even a bona fide witch, but it is so much more than bubbling cauldrons, sinister incantations, a mysterious and seductive man and the child entranced with his charismatic personality and all things forbidden to her by conservative often indifferent foster parents.

 Ethel Mannin explores ethics, morality, faith, love, the inherent magic of the natural world and the ultimate mystery of devotion -- both earthly and spiritual -- and does so with stark frankness, uncensored sexuality and near mockery of convention. Jenny Flower meets the man she will come to nickname Lucifer – for he is so much like the Angel of Light fallen from grace – when she is seven years old in 1930. We follow her first meeting of the mysterious man and subsequent meetings, each taking place on one of the four witch’s sabbaths over the next seven years. Her introduction takes place in a forest and like Adam and Eve after eating the forbidden fruit Jenny has hers eyes opened to a natural world of splendor and mystery. Her first act of daring, her first lesson of this new world, involves intently staring at a toad in attempt to strike it dead. Much to her surprise she is entranced by the toad, an animal she never actually looked at before. While staring supposedly with true hate she cannot bring herself to kill it and she spares its life. But the more time she spends with Lucifer the less kind she will be with her experiments.

Later she is drawn to the hovel of Mrs. Beadle, the town crone often shunned for being a witch herself. Mrs. Beadle sees in Jenny her younger self and nonchalantly begins to impart some of her arcane knowledge to the girl. They start with astrology, the names of the fallen angels, Lucifer and his followers whose names have become synonymous with demonology, and the Chart of the Characters of Evil Spirits. It is an education in complete reversal of her school and church learning. Soon Jenny and Mrs. Beadle are practicing spells together. The crone is always standing over her bubbling pot stirring up ingredients for unctions, philtres and potions, while simultaneously feeding Jenny’s insatiable curiosity for forgotten magic and unnameable rites.

Marian Drew, a schoolteacher, begins to notice a change in Jenny. She is concerned about her desire to run off to Mrs. Beadle’s, her derision of other schoolchildren. Jenny's constant talk of the man with the horns is alarming and her eager anticipation of his return on Candlemas or Lammas or Halloween, which fatefully happens to be Jenny’s birthday, inspire Miss Drew on a mission to save Jenny from both Mrs. Beadle's baleful influence and the friendship of the mysterious man -- if indeed he even exists.

Along the way we also meet Jenny's only real friend who she thinks is her aunt. Actually Nell Flower is Jenny's real mother who gave her up to her sister to raise. Nell is a free spirit, glamorous, unconventional who can't be bothered with the responsibility of being a mother. She doesn't even know the identity of Jenny's father nor does she care. She lives for her freedom, her life as a barmaid, her elaborate head-turning wardrobe, her cosmetics. Jenny loves her. Despite Nell's surface friendship and her referring to Jenny as a brat she is devoted and protective of her daughter. However, she never wants Jenny to know that she is her real mother. In an interesting twist of the plot Nell will also try to save Jenny from Mrs. Beadle and sever what the crone and the mysterious man assure is Jenny's cursed past.

Finally there are Jenny's foster parents -- aunt Ivy and her husband Joe. Jenny has two brothers, too, in this sadly loveless household. Ivy loses her patience with her willful but friendless child and never seems able to keep her disciplined. She resorts to screaming, yelling threats, and on occasion beating. Joe, the indifferent father, is also violent. Jenny, however, is immune to punishment of any sort. She seems to be a child of the devil himself. Yet Ivy doesn't seem too worried for Jenny or her slow transformation from a misbehaving yet innocent girl to a worldly, cynical and vengeful teen.

Illustrated front board of
Swan River Press reissue
Mannin’s novel is a wondrous book that raises intriguing questions about faith and love. Miss Drew acts the voice of reason and common sense who argues with Lucifer, a literal Devil’s advocate. She and Jenny are forced to reckon with the inextricably connected dichotomies of good and evil. One cannot believe in God without also believing in the devil, Lucifer constantly reminds the woman and the girl. Are not miracles the scared version of black magic? If you believe in Jesus raising the dead, changing water into wine and walking on water how can you easily dismiss the ability to communicate with dead spirits, making love potions, and flying through the air at midnight? Angels cannot exist without devils. Light is the forever companion of dark. What you truly believe in, your faith, shapes who you are for life. And that faith ultimately makes what you believe in exist. 

The writing often transcends a deceptively straightforward didactic style to achieve true poetry, especially in the sequences when Mannin celebrates the creatures of the forest, the flowers of a spring afternoon, the wild fury of the ocean where Lucifer who says he is a merchant seaman spends much of his life. The words carry a rhythm like beautifully constructed verses, and her frequent repetition of phrases like “the ice-green, ice-cold waters of the Gulf of Finland’ are like the chanting of Mrs. Beadle over her pot of mystery potions. Mannin calls on myth and legend when describing “the bells of lost Atlantis ringing under the sea.” She resorts to ancient archaic spelling like magicke and is compelled to quote Marlowe’s Faustus. Miss Drew cannot help but recall the line “Tis magic, a magic that hath ravished me” when she discovers that she has been willfully seduced by Lucifer despite all her attempts to resist him and draw him away from Jenny. In uttering that line Marian comes to realize that she welcomed the seduction and longs to see him again with a fervor almost as powerful as Jenny’s rabid devotion.

The conflict comes in the fight for Lucifer's attention. Jenny grows ever jealous of his closeness to Marian Drew. Marian slowly realizes she cannot save Jenny and must resort to bargaining. When she asks Lucifer to promise to leave Jenny alone for seven years she cannot foresee that promise will set in motion a fateful plot that will be the undoing for the trio.

Lucifer and the Child uses a supernatural motif that makes one recognize that magic is ever present in the world. That the wonders of the natural world are as hypnotic as any spell or incantation chanted in a candlelit kitchen. And yet there is danger in that attractiveness and seduction of the unknown. In the hands of Mannin's contemporary writers of supernatural and horror this novel might have become a lurid piece filled gruesome scenes and nightmarish apparitions. But as Mannin would have it the horror is more subtle, heartwrenching rather than blood spilling. We watch the irrevocable destruction of a soul, the dissolution of friendships, and a fulfillment of what amounts to a fatalistic worldview.

After being out of print for decades Lucifer and the Child has been reissued.  The adventurous Swan River Press based in Dublin, mostly devoted to reprinting forgotten works by Irish writers of supernatural and fantasy fiction, has published a gorgeous new volume of Ethel Mannin's cult masterpiece. Only available for purchase directly from the publisher ordering info can be found on their website here. The book includes a well researched foreword by scholar Rosanne Rabinowitz which sheds light on the novel's re-discovery and Ethel Mannin's fascinating life as an iconoclast and counterculture figure.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: The Come Back- Carolyn Wells

Boo!

It's October, the season of of black cat and witch inflatables on front lawns, jack-o'-lanterns on front porches and pumpkin spice in everything. October and especially Halloween will be different in this age of the COVID pandemic. Maybe there will be fewer jack-o'-lanterns on front porches and definitely fewer children trick-or-treating door-to-door but that doesn't mean we can't still keep the Halloween spirit alive on our vintage mystery blogs. Curtis Evans of “The Passing Tramp” proposed a "Friday Fright Night" meme for the entire month in which we will celebrate all things spooky, eerie and perhaps even terrifying. Right up my alley, friends! I jumped on board in an instant. Without further ado here is this week's contribution...one day late.

The Come Back (1921) is one of the books in my favorite short series from the indefatigable Carolyn Wells. Her most interesting books are those that feature her detective Pennington Wise and his enigmatic, quasi-psychic assistant Zizi. In each of the Penny Wise books this detective duo faces apparently supernatural happenings while Wells presents her murder mystery plot. Often the ghosts, haunted rooms and apparitions turn out to be rationalized.  I have previously reviewed two books in the series: The Room with the Tassels and The Man Who Fell through the Earth.  The Come Back is the fourth book in the eight book series and deals with spiritualism (a favorite topic of early 20th century mystery writers and a blog topic worthy of a post all its own) and the ghost of a dearly departed relative.

Like many of Well's better written books the plot is intricately complex. The story begins with the tale of three friends who go to Labrador in Canada on a hiking and camping trip and fall victim to severe snowstorm. One of the three, Peter Crane, is separated from the group and cannot be found afterward. When months pass and no word is heard from Peter his family and friends give him up as lost and presumed dead. An attempt to find his body when the snow melts in spring turns up nothing. Essentially Peter Crane has vanished.

Peter's mother Helen is a devout believer in spiritism. Peter's fiancée has an affinity with the Ouija board and the two women begin experiments in contacting Peter. When they start receiving messages from Peter via Ouija communication Helen Crane aches to find out exactly what happened to her son on that trip.

Of course there are skeptics and doubters. Christopher "Kit" Shelby, one of Peter's friends who survived the disastrous camping trip, loathes "spook idiots" and tries his best to warns the Crane family and Carly, Peter's fiancee, against accepting the messages from Peter as genuine "words from the beyond world." Julia Crane is Peter's sister and she resents Carly's introduction of the Ouija board into her house, dredging up supernatural nonsense, and making her parents into superstitious obsessives. Gilbert Blair, the third member of the camping trip and other survivor, is also suspicious of the spirit messages. Still, he makes his move on Carly now that she is apparently available for other men.  We know that he expressed an interest in her during an intimate conversation he had with Peter back in the camping trip section of the book.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Crane at the suggestion of a friend involved in the Society of Psychic Research visits the renowned medium Madame Parlato. He wants the help of an expert to prove that Peter's messages are real. She impresses him immediately when she contacts Peter and reveals his nickname "Peter Boots" known only to immediate family members, and details of how he died freezing to death in the snowstorm. How could she know any of this with no time to do any research other than hearing the stories from Peter's own ghostly lips?  Crane continues to visit the medium and becomes as devout in spiritism as his wife. He writes a book about his experiences, it becomes a huge bestseller and revives a nationwide interest in spiritism.

The plot thickens when Gilbert Blair is poisoned in an impossible crime situation. This may or not be related to an architectural prize that Blair was competing for with his jealous architect/illustrator roommate McClellan Thorpe. Blair had recently accused his roommate of stealing ideas. Perhaps someone in Madame Parlato's close circle of friends killed Gilbert because he was close to exposing her as a fraud.  Or... Is Peter's ghost seeking revenge?  Or --even more miraculous -- is Peter still alive and out for retribution for those he feels abandoned him months ago in Labrador?

The book is filled with all sorts of seance sequences, and the kind of spook busting detective work that is the hallmark of early 20th century mystery novels involving mediums and contact with the dead. The characters who disbelieve the supernatural elements, Kit and Julia are intent on exposing Madame Parlato as a fraud.  At one of the seances a tobacco pouch with Peter's initials materializes. Mr Crane begins to suspect that Peter is alive and hires a private detective. This is where Penny Wise and Zizi enter the book (very late in the story as per usual with Wells). Oddly, Wise himself does very little in this story.  It is Zizi and Julia who are the detectives and they do some admirable sleuthing.

The overall mystery is not difficult to figure out and all supernatural elements, of course, are in the end rationalized and the mediums exposed as frauds. But that doesn't take away from its genuinely entertaining story. Many unusual twists and complications enliven the story and make for some page turning excitement. There is a mysterious man named John Harrison, a reporter named Douglas who shows up at the Crane house asking prying questions, a movie called Labrador Luck that becomes all the rage and, in a reverse of most spook-buster mysteries, a blackmail scheme that involves enlisting the help of Madame Parlato to entrap the murderer.

Zizi is fast becoming one of my favorite female sleuths in early American 20th century mystery fiction.  She has intelligence, sarcastic humor, spunk and a fertile imagination. She often resorts to chicanery and con artistry with her boss in order to unmask the villains and miscreants in the books in which she appears. I highly recommend investigating these little known books. There are the best of Wells' early mystery writing career and do not infuriate the reader with the kinds of fantastical and improbable murders that arise from ludicrous motives in her later books of the 1930s and '40s.

Like many of Carolyn Wells' early novels The Come Back is in the public domain. It appeared at the Project Gutenberg over a decade ago and as a result has been pirated by profiteering "reprint publishers" who download the entire novel and repackage it under their "publishing name." So you have myriad editions to choose from. You can buy a pirated copy from about ten different repackagers of free content or download the book for free from Project Gutenberg.  Local libraries may have a copy on their shelves. A few actual used copies of the 1921 editions are out there for sale as well, including an A.L. Burt reprint in a beautifully intact and colorful DJ.

For more ghosts, monsters and things that go bump in the night visit Cross Examining Crime, My Reader's Block, The Passing Tramp and Clothes in Books.  And tune in next week for more Vintage Horrors!