Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Twilight Zone Magazine August 1983

At long last I have obtained a copy of Twilight Zone magazine from Aug 1983. The significance of this issue is that it contains the the third and final list of KEW. This, the 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels, is the only one I didn't have. I have added KEW's comments to the following books reviewed previously:

Vampires Overhead
The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck
The Flying Beast
Land Under England
The Cross of Carl

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Flying Beast by Walter S. Masterman

"Masterman again takes the detective formula and runs berserk, this time with a haunted English manor, murder, anti-gravity metal, a lost race of troglodytes, and a hidden abyss in the desert."

#7 of Karl Edward Wagner's Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels list is The Flying Beast by Walter S. Masterman. Masterman has the distinction of providing two books to this list with The Yellow Mistletoe (previously reviewed) being the other. Once again, we have the distinguished book publisher Ramble House to thank for making this gem available at less than astronomical prices.
As in Mistletoe, Beast is preoccupied with bright young things who have little more to do than race around the world in pursuit of a mystery. Years before a foursome was traveling the backwoods of America looking for a mystery, Masterman had his youthful heros doing similar work. And in typical stiff-upper-lip fashion, there is a butler who lives to serve his master. Sir Arthur Sinclair, the polygot investigator, makes another appearance.
Beast begins with Dick Maldon, a toff on a walking tour of England, taking refuge from a storm at an isolated country inn. He soon learns of an even more isolated country mansion. It's surrounded by barb wire and can only be entered by a secret underground passage. In this strange house dwells the Furgeson brothers and a daughter named Joan. Before Dickie even has a chance to say "What, ho!", Joan Furgeson dashes into the inn announcing the sudden death of her uncle.
A party makes its way to the mansion and finds one of the Furgeson brothers dangling from a rope. Dick stays on at the house overnight and encounters strange creatures moving around hidden passages. By the time the police make an show the next morning, he's decided to get to the bottom of the secret inside the house.
The novel introduces plenty of characters and, once again, it's not easy keeping up with them all. There's "Bunny" Vincent, Dick's lifelong friend and companion. Hilda, Dick's fiance. Higgins, a British Amelia Erhardt and her father, the eminent archeologist Professor Higgins. There's also Inspector Heldon, a gruff Scotland Yard investigator who doesn't approve of meddling kids. No talking Great Danes, but there is a race of subterranean cave dwellers who figure prominently into the book.
Characters have a tendency to expire just as they are about to reveal some dreaded secret. Others are sworn to secrecy and refuse to tell what they know. After awhile it's hard to put the book down because you want to find out what everyone is hiding.
Most of the book takes place in England, but the last fifty or so pages conclude in the deserts of Arabia. And it's this section which makes the book memorable. Again, Masterman travels into Lost Horizons territory with a hidden civilization and secret treasure. My only complaint with Beast is that it takes too long to get to Shangra-La. For some reason, most of the characters are quite ready to listen to their betters and stay put when danger is all about. The title refers to an airship which features into the plot, although the author doesn't give it much of a description.
A neat little book, I can see why KEW included it in these lists.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Money Shot by Christa Faust

This is the first book I've read by Christa Faust (see top photo), but I don't think it will be the last. It's also the second I've encountered from Hard Case Crime. If this is any indication of the publisher's abilities, I may have a new addiction. There has been a lot of chatter on the Net as to how Hard Case has spark plugged the noir genre and I'm starting to believe it. Hard Case is specializing in releasing new classics from masters old(Lester Dent) and new(Jason Starr).
Money Shot begins with former adult film actress Angel Dare waking up in the trunk of a car. She's been badly beaten, tortured, and has no idea why this happened. One minute she's the owner of an employment agency for adult talent and dancers, the next she's watching a former friend shot in the leg because she can't tell some thugs about an unknown case full of cash. Soon, Angel's been shot and left for dead. But through a supreme effort of will she managers to find a pay phone and call the only person who can help her: a former cop named Mallory. With his help, she attempts to find out why she was lured into the trap which nearly killed her. And along the way she will find out a few unpleasant things about herself and everyone close to her.
Money Shot takes place in the world of California adult film and video. As such, the realities of this fantasy world are part of the narrative. Since it's written from Angel's point-of-view, we get her take on the industry. She'd traveled to California in the 1980's from Chicago to party with rock stars, but ended up making adult videos. After ten years at the top of her game she retired to run the agency. Angel has no regrets, since she made her pile of cash and got out at the best time. But other women were not so fortunate.
This is a fast-paced book which I ploughed through in a few days. The story sucks the reader in making it difficult to put down. Christa Faust has a direct writing style which minimizes descriptions and dialogue. The reader is provided with enough material to keep the book moving along. She also manages to pack the hottest seduction scene into two pages involving nothing more than a pair of $700.00 designer boots.
Faust sets the plot up for standard devices which are twisted into angles. Everyone expects the hero(ine) to do the right thing and be rewarded by Justice. But happens when revenge is served hot on a cold dish? Faust leaves the reader in astonishment as perfectly moral and sane people commit the most sinister of deeds.
There's a sequel, Choke Hold, promised to the ambiguous ending of Money Shot. I want to reserve a copy now!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Shadow On The House by Mark Hansom

From Karl Edward Wagner's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

#10. The Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom
Hansom is another of the unjustly neglected group of thriller writers. Usually his novels only appeared to have supernatural content, and in the end we learn it was only Uncle Geoffrey in a Mad Monk costume behind it all. The ending to this one is a stunner.

A difficult book to find for years, Shadow was recently reprinted by Ramble House's Dancing Tuatara Press imprint. It also features a new introduction by John Pelan about the possible identity of the author Mark Hansom. Very little is known about Hansom, other than a number of thrillers were written under his name between the world wars. We may never know who he was, or if the name was a by-line for other writers. At least this edition doesn't feature a contrived cameo of the unknown writer.
Shadow is told from the viewpoint of Martin Strange, a young man living in genteel poverty. Martin's family had at one time posessed a lot of money and land, but the bulk of it went to a relative, leaving Marion with one manservant, Makepeace, and a stipend which allowed him enough for survival. At the beginning of the book, he's living in an unfashionable flat in London with Makepeace.
Soon he makes the acquaintance of Sylvia Vernon, a woman of stunning beauty, and her aunt, Lady Somerton. Martin is smitten with Sylvia and can only think of marriage. However, he lacks the funds to make a proper British husband and she is penniless herself, depending on the good graces of her aunt. Furthermore, there is a rival to Sylvia, Martin's good friend Christopher Knight. Almost by accident, Martin wishes Christopher would drop dead.
Before the book turns into another Henry James pastiche, Christopher is found murdered under very strange circumstances. Next, Martin's worthless cousin Mick, who inherited most of the family fortune, is also found dead. Mick had also been a rival for Sylvia. Martin makes a marriage proposal to Sylvia, who accepts, although she's worried there may be a curse on her.
At this point the novel begins to get very weird. Martin hears a tale from Makepeace about a similar death which occurred during the time of his grandfather. There's a friend of Lady Sommerton, Professor Wetherhouse, who starts showing up at unexpected times. Strange men seem to be watching Martin outside his new apartment. Martin begins to suspect he is the victim of a ghost which has been stalking the family for generations. Or is he going mad?
The novel is written in a very refined style. I agree with the introduction as to how the author had a very clear understanding of the British class system. Once Martin comes into the family money, Makepeace hires other servants who are forbidden to cross into the master's side of the flat after 9 PM. Even the title refers to a "shadow" of shame which may have fallen on the "house" of Strange. And it's not too hard to figure out the solution to the the two murders in the book well before the end of it.
Ramble House is to be commended for bringing out this hard to find classic.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Cross of Carl by Walter Owen

"Antiwar novella concerning a German foot soldier in World War I, horribly wounded and baled up with the other battle casualties to be rendered into soap. After this, things really get strange. Owen is best known for More Things in Heaven."

#10 on KEW's 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels list is The Cross of Carl by Walter Owen. The subtitle of the book is:

"An allegory; the story of one who went down into the depths and was buried; who doubting much, yet at the last lifted up his eyes unto the hills and rose again and was transfigured".

This may be the shortest work on the lists. It can easily be read in one sitting and looks to have been originally published in the form of a tract. I'm not exactly sure how it was first published since I've read it in the Groff Conklin 1951 collection In the Grip of Terror. I would describe it a novella due to it's brevity.
Cross is the story of Carl, a nondescript older recruit in a pointless war, which seems modeled after WW1. Desiring to win the "Cross", Carl becomes involved in an assault from the trenches on "Hill 51". The first section of this piece is a gruesome description of trench warfare (before air support changed everything). Troopers in tunics and gas masks attempt to over-whelm an enemy position fortified with snipers. Carl watches his comrades ripped apart by bullets and shells until he himself is dispatched in a mine explosion. The account of the battle is detailed, with body parts flying all over the place.
But the second part, "Golgotha", is even worse as Carl finds himself thrown into a train of bodies bound for the Utilization Factory of the Tenth Army Division. In essence, this is rendering plant to dispose of war dead. Corpses gleamed from the battle fields are sent to this plant to be processed into pig food and fertilizer. Carl is tossed in with the rest of the corpses, but he's not dead, merely unconscious. When he wakes up amidst the bundles of bound bodies destined to be processed, he goes insane.
The conclusion of the book has Carl wondering around a swamp preaching to any and everything he encounters. Finally, Carl encounters the army officers who sent him to the front. The ending is hideous, which is why some people have christened this the best anti-war narrative ever written.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

FAKE ID by Jason Starr

Tommy Russo is one of those people you casually meet at a bar or work. He's a sometimes actor, a full time bouncer, and a compulsive gambler. He's down on his luck lately, but that all changes when he meets a man named Pete one cold winter's day. Pete is also a small-time gambler, but he makes Tommy an offer he can't put away: for just ten thousand dollars, buy into a syndicate of investors and become the owner of a race horse. Tommy would like nothing better than to join this group, but there is this small issue involving his lack of funds. No problem, the safe at the bar where he works has all the money he'll need and he has memorized the combination. And one other thing: Tommy is a clinical definition of a sociopath.
Jason Starr lists Jim Thompson as one of his influences and it's not hard to see The Killer Inside Me as an inspiration for this book. A friend once wrote that reading Killer was like having a conversation with a psychopath. Reading Fake ID turns you into a prison psychologist trying to figure out where this nice young man went wrong. But soon you discover the nice young man isn't such a good person. Not since KW Jeter's Mantis have I felt so trapped inside the brain of a seriously disturbed individual.
What makes the book outstanding is how everyone around Tommy can see him going over the edge. At one point he casually tries to hit on a police woman and the brief conversation is wrong on so many counts. Any fool can see the pick-up line is out of place and only going to put him into deeper trouble. Of course, from Tommy's point-of-view, a pretty woman is fair game and anyone opposed to him is an asshole. Tommy has had such a string of success with his natural acting ability and good looks, so he can talk his way out of any bad situation. But that luck is starting to run thin. It doesn'thelp that he's violent prone.
If I have one criticism of Fake ID, it would be the lack of background material on Tommy. How did he end up this way? Since the book is told from his POV, we don't get a lot of asides. There is some reference to child abuse as he remembers being knocked down the stairs by his father, but not much more.
Still, an excellent book and another fine production from Hard Case Crime.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin

#8 on KEW's 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels:

"The greatest of the Gothic novels, proving that Gothic and psychological horrors are doubly effective when combined."

Where do I begin with this one? To say I've been working on it thirty years plus would be bragging. I first encountered Melmoth in HP Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, where he praised it to the rafters. I spent a summer working as a delivery man while in college, so I read the first part of Melmoth in the cab of a truck. This time around, I was working a part-time job on the graveyard shift, where I read the novel at 2AM while trying to fight sleep (always the optimum way to experience Gothic novels). And I finished it at the dentist's office.
Melmoth is the story of a man named Melmoth who has somehow extended his life by 150 years. It's never said how he did it, but the assumption is that he made a pact with Satan. The only way Melmoth can escape the pact is to find someone to take his place. This situation forms the narrative of the book.
The novel was written in 1820 by an Irish clergyman, who never saw any success from it (he died a few years after it was published). Since it's written at the time of the Romantic revival, Melmoth is outside of the great Gothic wave. However, these post-Goth writers did love to use their words. They never let one sentence suffice when an entire page would do. For instance, here is a passage I have pulled from the manuscript at random:

She was thus employed on the eighth morning, when she saw the stranger approach; and the wild and innocent delight with which she bounded towards him, excited in him for a moment a feeling of gloomy and reluctant compunction, which Immalee's quick susceptibility traced in his pausing step and averted eye. She stood trembling in lovely and pleading diffidence, as if intreating pardon for an unconscious offence, and asking permission to approach by the very attitude in which she forbore it, while tears stood in her eyes ready to fall at another repelling motion.

And that's just two sentences. Try enduring 600 pages of this prose.
Melmoth is actually a series of stories within stories. Such a style of writing is not new; Arabian Nights used this technique. The 1965 Polish film Saragossa Manuscript also utilized the same method. It's a good style to keep the reader engaged, but you can get lost in the narratives.
Melmoth links all the stories together with a mysterious wanderer who appears at a crucial time in someone's life. He makes them an offer they can't refuse. Whenever he appears, the subject of the story is at the lowest point in their life, usually near death. Melmoth's offer will take them out of the horrid situation, but at the cost of their soul.
The first tale is that of John Melmoth, a college student who travels to the home of his uncle and benefactor. Here he learns of his fabled ancestor who appears at dire moments in the history of the family. The description of his uncle's wretched genteel poverty is one of the best sections of the novel. The younger Melmoth soon locates a manuscript among his deceased uncle's papers which tells of the adventures abroad of an Englishman named Stanton after the Restoration. Stanton has several encounters with the wanderer, one of them in a lunatic asylum. John Melmoth next encounters a Spaniard who tells him the story of a nobleman forced to become a monk. The wanderer appears when the monk is imprisoned by the Inquisition. Escaping from the cells of the Inquisition, the monk takes refuge with a Spanish Jew who shows him a manuscript describing the wanderer's encounter with a noble Spanish Christian family. The wanderer succeeds in wedding the daughter of the family, only to bring her tragedy. Melmoth concludes with the wanderer making his final appearance to John Melmoth.
My one-paragraph summary of the novel only skims the basics of the complicated plot. There's a whole passage where Melmoth encounters a jungle girl on an island off the coast of India. Hard to say, but I can't help but wonder if this passage inspired both The Jungle Book and Tarzan. The description of the prisons of the Inquisitions out-goths anything Edgar Allan Poe wrote. But I should also mention Maturin's anti-catholic church diatribes are excessive to the point of parody.
Melmoth is a crucial book in the development of Gothic horror literature. If the reader can endure the prose, it's a good tale.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Yellow Mistletoe By Walter S. Masterman

From 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels:

#7 The Yellow Mistletoe by Walter S. Masterman.
A wild one. Masterman was another of those detective writers who at times broke away from formula. This one reads like a cross between Monk Lewis and Sax Rohmer.

Once again I delve deep into the inner mysteries of the KEW list. What book made the cut and why? I've speculated in the past few reviews about Wagner's own personal interests appearing in these tomes. So what links this one with the rest? Not much. There is a doctor. I think he enjoyed this one for it's sense of adventure.
The Yellow Mistletoe begins with a murder in the London subway in 1930. The Rev. George Shepherd was on his way to deliver important documents to Scotland Yard when he' s found dead at the foot of a stairway. The official cause is an accidental fall. Sir Arthur Sinclair, a retired police investigator soon takes an interest in the case. He discovers the Rev. Shepherd was serving in a small town in Derbyshire, where he'd relocated to after his second marriage. The Reverend was survived by a son(Ronald) from the first marriage and daughter (Diana) from the second. Both of his wives had died, the second was found frightened to death in a wooded area near his church.
Rev. Shepherd's son and daughter soon make an appearance. We don't get much of a description of either of them (descriptions of the characters is one of the few weak points of the novel), but we are told his daughter possesses golden hair and is the very image of her late mother (also named Diana).
At this point the novel bogs down a bit as the step-siblings busy themselves dealing with the death of their father. Sir Arthur pops in and out and more characters are introduced. There's an Italian restaurateur named Ganzani who tries to "buy" Diana for parties unknown. Carstairs, a chum of Ronald from his college days, makes an appearance. He has interests of his own in Diana. There's a rich uncle R. Reginald Shepherd, who seems to know more about the reverend's dead wife than he will admit, but he soon dies also. And we are introduced to Dr. Smart, a research physician. Lastly, there's a smart set, Ralph and Doris Gorringe, ready to play tennis at the drop of a straw hat. Masterman has an irritating tendency to introduce a lot of characters quickly with similar names.
It's the half-point where the book turns from a conventional 1930's mystery novel to a tale of high adventure. Diana suddenly disappears with Carstairs. It's not clear if she was kidnapped or went willingly. Her step-brother Ronald decides to pursue her across Europe with the Gorringe kids in tow. The trail first leads to an ancient Italian town near Lake Nemi, then across the mountains of Bulgaria. Along the way they discover Carstairs is the leader of a lost tribe of a Greek fertility cultists, which survive in a hidden valley near the Black Sea. They practice unspeakable rites at spring. And the cult has designs on Diana, whose mother fled from the valley. It's up to the mysterious Sir Arthur to save the day.
Obviously Masterman studied George Frazer's The Golden Bough for the ancient Greek survivalists in the lost valley. There's plenty of references to the "priest-king" and Diana of the Woods. It wasn't George Lucas alone who found Frazer useful for a work of fiction.
I give credit to Masterman for a brief but well-thought depiction of an isolated lost race. Instead of portraying them as pure representatives of the noble past, he points out all the problems caused by in-breeding. Even the crops are having trouble .
As for the title, it refers to a particular plant the initiates of the Greek cult use to identify each other. Sprigs of yellow mistletoe pop-up all over the place in the first 100 pages.
Ramble House has done of a fine job of getting this book and other novels by Walter Masterman back into print.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

KEW List

There's a good mention of the KEW list over at Weird/Horror/SF/Genre BLOGOS. To read it go here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959)

From Karl Edward Wagner's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

#2 Psycho by Robert Bloch
Can you ever feel safe in a shower again? I think there may have been a film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock.

As you can see from KEW's quote, it's not easy to review a cultural icon. Especially one that most people mostly know from a popular film version. Everyone is familiar with the plot! It might be a little bit easier to do the job if the movie adaptation was a bomb (and some were), but the 1960 version with Jamie's mom is a classic.
To make matters worse, I actually finished the last chapter of the novel while watching said movie (courtesy Ted Turner).
Well. It is Halloween.
The novel begins with Norman Bates sitting at his desk in the motel owned by him and his mother. It's out in the middle of Texas. He's contemplating how the pounding of the rain on the window panes remind him of a book he read on Inca victory dances where the body of dead foe served as the drum section. Then his mother enters the room and gives him a load of grief. Bates is described here as a fat, bald man, not at all like the Anthony Perkins character. Finally, he notices someone has driven up to the motel.
The next scene flashes back to the day before. Mary Crane is a 27-year-old secretary who's having to endure the leers of a big-bucks land speculator in the real estate office where she works. The speculator, Tommy Cassidy, casually slaps down 40K in front of her to pay for a house for his daughter- a wedding present. She's told by her boss to take the money to the bank.
But it's Friday and Mary has some other ideas. She met Sam Loomis on a cruise (she won the trip in a contest) some years before and they're planning on getting married. Sam owns a hardware store in another part of the state, but he's forced to live in the back room of it. When he inherited the store from his father, he also inherited the debts. Sam is determined to pay off the bills and save up for the future, but it will take time. And Mary is tired of waiting.
Knowing she'll have a weekend head start, Mary takes the cash and flees town. She manages to exchange cars along the way until she decides it's time to take a rest. And where better to chill than an isolated motel off the main highway? It just so happens to be Norman Bates' Motel.
Much of the novel is written from Norman Bates' point-of-view. Not in first person mode, but in third, as if Bloch was starring over Bates' shoulder as he went about his daily routine. Bloch would later claim the book was inspired by the Ed Gein case. The writing is crisp, showing Bloch's skill as a professional writer.
For a sample, here is one of the most chilling accounts of child abuse I've ever encountered:

Maybe the real trouble was that his eyes were bad. Yes, that was it, because he remembered how he used to enjoy looking in the mirror as a boy. He like to stand in front of the glass without any clothes on. One time Mother caught him at it and hit him on the head with the big silver-handled hairbrush. She hit him hard, and it hurt. Mother said that was a nasty thing to do, to look at yourself that way.

Bloch would also write two sequels to the book, which were never filmed. I haven't read either one, but I'm told he takes a chainsaw to Hollywood in at least one. He also claimed in his autobiography that Psycho didn't "make" him as a writer; he had a successful writing career long before the book was optioned for a film. Bloch passed away in 1994.
For an excellent introduction to the whole "crazed killer living next door" genre, you couldn't find a better book. It's also brisk: my copy runs 153 pages.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dr. Death Vs. The Secret Twelve, Vol. 2 (Altus Press, 2009)

This second volume of Dr. Death novels is significant because none of them were ever published at the time they were written (in 1935). Although Waves of Madness, the first novel included in this collection, was promised in the third and final issue of Doctor Death magazine, it would be 45 years before it was discovered among the papers of the late writer Harold Ward. The introduction to this collection, by Matthew Moring, describes how pulp collector Jack Irwin ran an ad looking for old pulp magazines and was contacted by Gladys Ward, the widow of writer Harold Ward. After Harold Ward passed away in 1950, she kept his old manuscripts, which have been a godsend for literary research. The other unpublished Doctor Death novel, The Red Mists of Death is also included in Vol 2. The collection is rounded out with a brief interview of Ms. Gladys Ward and some reproductions of artwork used in the Doctor Death magazine.
Waves of Madness has mad scientist Rance Mandrain (AKA Dr. Death) robbing a bank by using a sonic generator which can unleash madness on anyone unlucky enough to be in hearing range. With his undead zombie assistants, it's a cinch for him to drive away with the deposits while people are killing each other. Next we get to see Dr. Death interviewing a rich industrialist who wishes to finance the old horror's latest bid to destroy civilization. Dr. Death wants to unleash world war to restore humanity to a state of nature. The industrialist and his cabal wants the riches war will bring, so it's a good working relationship for them both.
Out to stop Dr. Death is dashing police detective Jimmy Holm. He's helped by his fiance Nina (when she isn't getting nabbed by Death's minions) and hard-boiled Inspector Ricks. Death is aided by the Egyptian princess Charmion and whoever he can rope into service. Of course, Death has the ability to project his will onto ordinary mortals and to move his soul around from one host body to the next.
Once the original deep ecologist is foiled, he returns with The Red Mist of Death. Presenting himself as Yama, the god of death, the old fiend steals a valuable jewel from a Tibetan monastery. He teams up with a "half Russian half Mongolian" mercenary named Kham. Together they invade China from Tibet using the weapon featured in the novel's title: a blister-inducing chemical which condemns anyone coming into contact with it to a slow and agonizing death. But again, Jimmy Holm stops Death before the lunatic's plans can become manifest. And Death escapes in the last few pages, of course, to terrorize the world once more.
The Red Mists of Death is the better of the two novels. Although Ward writes about China in the most stereotypical way imaginable, he does take care to portray individual Chinese in a positive light. He even seems to have done his research on contemporary China. I just wish he'd have been able to do something with Charmion, Death's sidekick. You can only take so much of her "Now we weel keel" dialogue. But you also get some insight into Death's vendetta against civilization: he believes both God and Satan have urged him to bring humanity back to the stone age (making him the original processean).
A good wrap-up to a pulp magazine remembered mostly for it's lurid covers and outlandish plots.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE SCREAMING MIMI by Frederic Brown

#4 of KEW's list of 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

Brown at his terrifying best, and again with a psychotic killer.This was filmed twice; once as The Screaming Mimi and more recently as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a/k/a The Phantom of Terror).

One thing I'm starting to notice about Karl Wagner's list: psychology pops up on a regular basis. Given Wagner's training as a psychiatrist, this isn't too surprising. I do have to wonder if these themes inspired him to go into the the psychiatric profession, or was he attracted to the books on this list after he'd made the decision to go into the mental field. The answer may never be known.
Substance abuse shows up a lot in this list, but I'll talk about that at a later date.
Screaming Mimi was first published in 1949, at the height of Brown's writing career. Although the pulp magazine publishing industry was winding down at this point, Brown still managed to knock out a lot of fiction for the market. Noir fiction was popular at the time; returning GI's were discovering the bad guys didn't necessarily wear domino masks. Hailing from the midwest, Brown's mean streets werelocated in Chicago for this book.
Mimi opens with a reporter named Sweeny recovering from a week-long drunk. What shakes him out of his alcoholic stupor is the sight of a beautiful women bleeding from a knife wound. The ripper, a psycho killer who preys on young blond women, is on the prowl and Yolanda Lang, a dancer at a cheap tavern, was almost the next victim. Yolanda survives the attack, but the ripper is still on the prowl.
Sweeny's vision of Yolanda is enough to sober him up and get him back to his job at The Blade, a big city newspaper. He convinces the editor to put him on the ripper story, which allows him the chance to look into Yolanda's background. He soon meets Yolanda's manager, "Doc" Greene, who resents Sweeny's interest in her, but understands their mutual need to keep Yolanda alive.
Ace reporter Sweeny quickly discovers one of the ripper's previous victims worked only one day at a gift shop. She sold a small statue of a nude, screaming woman to an unknown customer. Since she was murdered within a few hours of the sale, Sweeny deduces the statue triggered something in the killer which would initiate the string of murders. He buys the only remaining copy of the statue from the same gift shop.
Sweeny manages to track down both the manufacturer and sculptor of the statue. What he discovers unlocks Yolanda's past and the identity of the ripper. To tell more would be to give away the conclusion of the novel. Let me say, it's a surprise ending which came from behind. Brown was in top form when he wrote the last chapter to Mimi.
If you're interested in tight, witty crime novels, this is an excellent read. Brown gives a portrait of post-WW2 Chicago where rooming houses, cheap booze, and homeless people are the daily background.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Sold at 1700 pounds or 2786.81 dollars.
Guess I'll just have to wait that much longer to read this one.
And it's the other R R Ryan book on the KEW list. Dammit.
Go here to read more about the sale.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Deadly Percheron (1946) by John Bardin

#1 on KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

"The opening chapter defies description. Imagine one of those 1930s screwball comedies with the crazy situations, but substitute malevolence for humor."

Dr. George Matthews is an established psychiatrist in New York City. He's in his 30's, happily married, and has much to be proud about in his life. One day a young man, nicely dressed, walks into his office wearing a flower in his hair. This is not something that happens on a regular basis in 1943. The young man, named Jacob Blunt, tells the good doctor that he is going insane. Little men keep paying him money to do ridiculous things. Sometimes it's wearing flowers in his hair, sometimes it's giving away quarters. The money he's paid is good, but the little men keep wanting him to do stranger and stranger things. He's sought Dr. Matthews out because Blunt isn't sure if the little men are real or not.
To help Blunt, Dr. Matthews accompanies him to a bar one night to meet one of the little men. And in the midst of the bar emerges an actual dwarf who introduces himself as an American Leprechaun. Next, he tells Blunt about the next job: delivering Percherons (draft horses) to select people in New York. There's even one in a van outside the bar; all he has to do is tie it up at a given location. Sure Blunt is the brunt of a hoax, Dr. Matthews leaves the bar and takes a train home.
The following morning, Dr. Matthews learns that a famous Broadway actress has been murdered and there is a Percheron tethered in front of her townhouse. Jacob Blunt has been found drunk at the location. But he swears he isn't the killer. When Matthews comes to see Blunt at the police station, they release him into Matthews' care. However, the man they produce as Jacob Blunt isn't the same man who came to see the psychiatrist. Deciding to find out what the hell is going on, Matthews accepts Blunt into his care. But on the way to the subway, he is struck from behind and passes out.
Matthews wakes up in a hospital to find his face disfigured and the staff calling him John Brown. He's in a mental ward, having been found wondering the streets in a delirium with a social security card in the name of John Brown. When he insists he's the psychiatrist Matthews, the hospital checks up on his claims. To his horror, they inform him Dr. George Matthews was found dead ten months ago.
The only way he's able to get out of the mental ward is by pretending to be the derelict John Brown and concocting a story the hospital staff will believe. Eventually, he's released and gets a job working in a cafeteria in Coney Island. "John Brown" settles into his new life and tries to fit in with the other carnival workers. But one day he encounters the leprechaun he'd met with Jacob Blunt....
Perecheron can be a confusing book to read. After Matthews meets the "leprechaun"the second time, he begins to unravel the mystery of what happened to him in the intervening months between his blow to the head and waking up in the mental hospital. The reader is given the sequence of events almost in reverse order. You only find out what happened after the doctor remembers something. In some ways it reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) film.
Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Here Comes A Candle by Fredric Brown

From KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels list:

#3 "Brown, Like Bloch, could be extremely funny when he chose, or extremely frightening. This time he wasn't kidding."

Frederic Brown isn't well-known today, but his short stories and novels were widely published when he was in his prime. After he passed on in 1972, he was mostly remembered for the novel Martians Go Home, a hilarious SF satire. He wrote for both the science fiction and mystery market, earning countless awards in each.
Here Comes A Candle was first published in 1950.
The hero of Candle is Joe Bailey, a 19-year-old numbers runner for a local Milwaukee gangster named Mitch. Mitch has been feeling the heat lately, so he's had to curtail his lucrative sports lottery games and look for other opportunities. While he's cooking up the next scheme, he keeps Joe on a small retainer, allowing Joe the time to think about the past.
And Joe's past isn't pretty: he grew up in poverty after seeing his father gunned down in a bungled movie theater robbery. It gets worse: Joe has a pathological fear of candles and hatchets. His uncle had taught him a poem which ended with the rhyme:

"Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

As a young child, Joe suffered from horrid nightmares, until a psychologist was able to help him. Still, he feels guilty over his father's death and still abhors those candles and axes.
Now Joe has met two women who will forever change his life. One is the pretty and sensible Elle, who works as a waitress at the local diner owned by her uncle. The other is the seductive Francy, Mitch's gun moll girlfriend. Elle is the sensible choice, but how many men make sensible choices when their hormones are raging?
Brown did an unusual thing when he wrote Candle: he told the flashbacks and dream sequences in other writing formats than the standard novel: radio script, movie script, sports cast, etc. Such literary experiments are not unusual today, but were quite visionary for 1950.
Ultimately, the novel is one depressing trip. You just know Joe is going to do the wrong thing and there is no one around to give him sound advice. His best friend and fellow science fiction magazine fan is a communist. The bartender who warns Joe of Mitch's plans keeps howling about nuclear doom. The only father figure who appears in the book is Dixie, a sadistic hold-up man.
Candle is an excellent psychological horror novel from the same stream that produced Nightmare Alley.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz

From KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

#12: "The Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz
Is it real or is it hashish? But what is reality? It's all relative, isn't it? This one is strange even for Perutz."

The Master of the Day of Judgment is told from the point of view of Baron Yosch, a military officer in the Kaiser's army. Although the events taking place in the book occur over a few days in 1909, the book supposedly comes from a manuscript found in the baron's personal papers after he went missing during WW1. As such, it is a "found" novel, a style not very popular these days. The edition I'm reviewing is the 1930 Hedwig Singer translation.
At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the baron's circle of friends: the actor Eugene Bischoff, the physician Dr. Edward von Gorsky, and Engineer Waldemar Solgrub. A married couple, Felix and Dina (Bischoff's sister) also figure into the novel. Most of the action takes place in the same city, which appears to be Prague.
Structured as a murder mystery, Master is concerned with a rash on unexplainable suicides which have occurred over the past few weeks. The key death happens in the first fifty pages when the actor Bischoff kills himself with a pistol in a closed room. No one can figure out why he did it. The baron suddenly finds himself accused by everyone as he had been too close to Bischoff's sister Dina. The actor had also lost a large sum of money in a bank crash and the baron is accused of confronting him with this information.
Baron Yosch plays the part of a dandy through the book. He's a military officer, but has never seen combat. He's more interested in playing Beethoven on the piano than any martial activity. When the baron suddenly finds himself at the center of a murder investigation, he decides to retire to a country estate he's not visited in years. We're constantly given detailed events of trivial matters he remembers from the event.
As more suicides occur, the remaining witnesses to the death of Bischoff become convinced some evil entity is at work. Eventually they trace the source down to one location. To tell more about it would give away the ending of the book. I will say it is quite a surprise, and worth the read.
Master of the Day of Judgement is an excellent book and can be read very quickly. I'm sure the translator added much to the flavor of it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Doctor Death: Twelve Must Die

Doctor Death was originally a minor character in some pulp stories of the 1930's. The forward in this collection suggests that the publisher decided to give him his own magazine after the edition of All Detective magazine featuring a Dr. Death cover sold very well. The success of the story never transferred over to the larger format and the Dr. Death magazine was canceled after three issues. Vol. 1 of the Altus collection contains all three of these plus a pitch writer Harold Ward did for a Dr. Death comic strip.
In 12, Dr. Death is revealed to be Professor Rance Mandarian, a once highly respected university researcher who had gone insane. Recreated himself as Dr. Death, Mandarian has decided to wage war on human civilization. A master of the occult sciences, Dr. Death has discovered the means to create zombies and harness elementals, deadly spirits who can destroy anything in their path. At the beginning of the book, he issues a warning to the world: destroy the wheels of industry and return to living off the land or face his wrath. To make his position clear, he pronounces a death sentence on 12 leaders of science and industry. He then dares anyone to save them.
Opposing Dr. Death is The Secret Twelve, a council made-up of the leaders of society (and the underworld). Death's main adversary is Jimmy Holm, a privately wealthy police detective and Detective Inspector John Ricks, a hard-boiled copper from the old school.
The writing style is crisp and to the point. No long scenes of descriptive dialogue here! The pulp audience wanted entertainment in the way of action. We do get a detailed tour of Dr. Death's subterranean lair and it comes complete with the walking dead and stacks of bodies. Plot devices tend to be quick as well; when Jimmy Holm and Death's assistant Nina Ferrera fall in love it takes place over the course of two pages.
The next novel, The Gray Creatures, has Dr. Death traveling to Egypt to find the lost tomb of Anubis, the ancient god of the dead. Death has learned of an amulet in the tomb which will enable him to raise the dead of Egypt and complete his conquest of the world. Of course, Nina gets kidnapped by the fiendish scientist right before his trip, forcing Jimmy Holm to head off in hot pursuit. This is the best novel of the three as Ward is able to build an effective sense of tension in the scenario as Death gets closer to his goal. And along the way we encounter a lost tribe of pyramid builders. Jimmy Holm thwarts Dr. Death in the last few pages of the novel, but the crafty old test tube cleaner manages to escape once again.
The final novel, The Shriveling Murders, has it's name taken from Dr. Death's latest invention: a ray gun which sucks all the moisture out of a person's body, reducing them to a dead doll. Death has plans for his new toy and the means to carry it out. Although not quite as good as Gray Creatures, it has numerous scenes which are wildly out of control. There's even a riot at an insane asylum where a herculean lunatic leads a mob of madmen against Death's army of the living dead.
But Shriveling also has a voodoo cult scene which is embarrassingly racist. I'm glad Altus didn't censor it; future generations need to experience this sort of thing for comparison.
Once again Nina is conveniently kidnapped and falls into Death's clutches (this being her main profession). Of course, Jimmy saves the day at the end, but Dr. Death escapes.
The collection has a nice introduction by pulp historian Will Murray. It concludes with a proposed daily comic strip script by Harold Ward. The script neatly distills the major plot devices of 12 Must Die down to the essentials.
All-in-all, an excellent collection with fine illustrations from the original magazines

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pulp Fiction Art: Cheap Thrills and Painted Nightmares (2005)

Amazing documentary movie from the UK which looks at the men who painted the covers for the horde of pulp magazines which flooded the newsstands in the 1930's and forties. There's interviews with the surviving artists and plenty of revelations. Did you know that Rafael Desoto, who painted most of the Spider covers, wanted to be a priest? He talks about his change of career in this movie. We also learn that most pulp artists weren't paid that much and regarded their magazine work as only something to pay the bills until their day arrived. Also, most of the cover originals for the "shudder pulps" have been lost; apparently the artist who painted the bulk of them was so distraught he made a bonfire of his originals.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Ler Triology

One of my favourite SF series is the Ler trilogy by M A Foster. Now combined into one volume, The Book of the Ler, it's the story of a race of humans created by mankind who become humanity's cousins in the journey to the stars. The first book, The Game Players of Zan, describes their life in a special preserve on earth. The second, The Warriors of Dawn, is about the a human and a Ler who team up to find a renegade tribe of Ler in a remote solar system. The series concludes with The Day of the Klesh. I could write pages on these books, so well-crafted they are. I will suffice it to say that it's one of the few series novels I have re-read and taken notes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Complete Doctor Death In All-Detective (2008- Altus Press reprint)

One of the more interesting characters of the shudder-pulps was Dr. Death. A sinister figure who wished to destroy human civilization, he had no qualms about doing it by any means necessary. Years before radical environmentalists fantasized about destroying cities and returning humanity to the jungle, the Dr. Death character tried to carry out his evil plans in the short-lived magazine of the same name.
But where did the figure of Dr. Death originate? It turns out he was the prime villain of four novelettes by writer Edward P. Norris in All-Detective magazine, from 1934 to 1935. But this Dr. Death didn't have plans of world dominance; he's a criminal mastermind with a silver hair helmet and a frightening visage. He also wears a school masters black robe with a gun underneath. His principle antagonist is "Nibs" Holloway, a natty young man who works for Joseph Calweiner, the Jewelery King. Calweiner had come up the hard way and still needed Nibs to take care of problem accounts.
The first story, "Doctor Death" introduces the title character. Here, the government of Abyssinia gets tangled up with a large missing gem. Dr. Death seems to die at the end. The second story "Cargo of Death" is the most interesting one in the collection. Once again it involves stolen gems, but a group of lepers figure into the plot. "Death's IOU and "Thirteen Pearls" conclude the collection.
Most of the stories are written in 1930ish colloquial style, which can make them a little hard to understand if you aren't familiar with the references. A lot of the dialogue is on the level of: "It's a five-spot for every minute under the half hour." In some ways this is part of the charm of the old pulps.
The collection also comes with a nice introduction by Tom Johnson.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Fully Dressed And In His Right Mind (1935) by Michael Fessier

"Like John Franklin Bardin [The Deadly Percheron], Fressier takes a screwball situation and adroitly twists it into something evil."
-Karl Edward Wagner, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels.

Fressier passed away many years ago after a long and distinguished career writing for movies and TV. He didn't produce a lot of novels, which is what makes Fully Dressed memorable.
I like to imagine KEW finding this one in some dusty bookstore or second hand shop, on the verge of tossing it back, then thinking: "Wait a minute, this looks good." As I work my way through his "essentials" list, the variety of it never ceases to amaze me. There are days I wonder how big the list might've been if he'd decided to publish everything which had impressed him.
Here's the opening line from the novel:

"I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk."

The victim is the publisher of the local paper. The killer is a nondescript little old man. The narrator of the story is John Price, an everyman who just happens to find himself caught up in events he can't fathom. The little old man keeps showing up at Price's favourite hang-outs, freely admitting to the murder and several others which occur in the book. Because the old man, who never seems to have a name, is so harmless in appearance, no one takes his claims seriously. But, when people do get irritated at the old man, they suddenly discover his eyes turn into flaming pits of green fire.
Soon, Price has taken up with an artist who wants to paint the old man's portrait. But then Price discovers a woman who swims naked every night in a local park lake. She's apparently some kind of water nymph who serves as the counterpart to the old man. The two mythical creatures exist in a balance, which never does get explained in the book.
I can't understand why KEW classified this book as "Non-Supernatural", because there doesn't seem to be any other explanation for the woman or the old man.
Fully Dressed, is written with a lot of dialogue and not much in the way of character sketching. I can't help but wonder if it was originally written as a film proposal. It would've fit in with a lot of the romantic comedies of the time. Replace the little old man with "Hey Aaaaaabot!" and you'll see what I mean.
It can also be read in one sitting.

Monday, July 6, 2009

TORTURE GARDEN by Octave Mirabeau

"Fin-de-siecle decadence at its best. At one time one of those 'suppressed' books and now chiefly remembered as one of Frank Frazetta's better paperback covers"
-Karl Edward Wagner, 1983

"In a broader sense the expression fin de si├Ęcle is used to characterize anything that has an ominous mixture of opulence and/or decadence, combined with a shared prospect of unavoidable radical change or some approaching 'end.'"- Wikipedia

First published in 1899, Torture Garden still leaves a taste of decadence in your mouth. Written by a French journalist disgusted with the pomposity of his own society, he shows us a foreign one equally beautiful, equally deadly. Mirabeau was famous for writing about forbidden subjects and shoving them in the reader's face. In this book, he decided to examine the connection of sex and death by way of art and beauty.
Torture Garden begins with a discussion about law and society among a gathering of cultured guests. As it turns to punishment, a quiet guest begins to tell his tale of a trip he recently took to China.
But first he gives us his back story:
After being raised in by a ruthless businessman of a father, our hero suddenly found himself penniless while still a young man (dad's shady business deals having caught up with the family). So he becomes a patron of the only man more twisted than his father: a government minister he went to college with. His political friend, named Eugene, becomes worried the narrator will become a lead weight on his career, so he manages to send him on a government paid scientific mission to Asia. It doesn't matter that the hero of the book doesn't know a thing about his subject- embryology- the important issue is getting him out of France.
While traveling to China he meets an Englishwoman, the beautiful and sensuous Clara. Unfortunately for him, Clara has an unhealthy obsession with death. Once they reach China, she takes him to a the Torture Garden of the book's title: A massive garden outside a penitentiary. Those convicted by a Chinese judge are executed by bizarre and unusual means. After visiting and describing the gardens, he leaves with Clara. But Clara is so lost in her ecstasy she soon faints. A Chinese ferry woman, who has wittnessed Clara's swoons before, takes them both to the only place Clara can recover: a floating sex club. End of book.
There isn't a lot of plot or character deveopment in Torture Garden. Mirabeau was obsessed with hammering home his belief about French society being one big execution chamber. There is an interesting scene where the narrator and Clara encounter an executioner who fancies himself an artist and deplores the crude mass killings of gunpowder. I'm not sure if the description of the prision or the torture garden has any basis in relaity; I'll leave that one for late-period Manchu Dynasty scholars.
A fascinating example of "Decandent 90's" writing from the same decade which gave us The King In Yellow.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Two Dozen Essentials for Aspiring Writers

Found on the web:

1. All publishers are thieves, con-artists, and power-freaks until proven otherwise.
2. It’s illegal to shoot a publisher’s lawyer, one of the many inequities of our legal system.
3. Professional critics are parasites.
4. Amateur critics are pests on the same level as cockroaches or those gnats who buzz around at your favorite fishing spot.
5. Readers don’t care about your tortured inner life, if any.
6. Similarly, do not write about the experience of writing, unless you’re like me and have nothing else to do just now.
7. Story ideas are a dime a dozen. An acquaintance who is wild to share a great idea, if you will only do the writing, is someone who doesn’t have a clue how writing works.
8. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many other literary geniuses were alcoholics. This does not mean you can become a literary genius simply by staying drunk.
9. Same for dope. There was only one Hunter Thompson and he killed himself.
10. Unless proven otherwise, academic literary types are either communists or status-crazed dilettantes.
11. Literature professors have one thing in common with semi-literate knuckle-draggers: they don’t think anyone can, or should, make money at writing.
12. “Little” magazines are simply a way to pretend you’re rich enough to write without getting paid for it.
13. Ditto, only worse, for your local “arts and culture” gimme paper.
14. Hanging out with the local arts and culture crowd will turn your brain to tofu, your blood to ethanol, and your writing to gibberish.
15. Being published really will impress girls, but not so much as borrowing a baby and wheeling it around the mall.
16. Don’t date other writers unless you’re gay.
17. Don’t marry another writer unless you’re stupid.
18. Don’t drop the names of famous writers you supposedly know. Most of the people you’re talking to have never heard of them and the rest think you’re lying (which you probably are).
19. Most female writers will assume that any man they meet is either married or a stalker/serial killer. They are often right.
20. Many people will assume that male writers are gay, even if they write blood and guts shoot-em-ups.
21. And just why shouldn’t sex and violence be marketable? It’s not like they never happen in real life (unless you’re a local art/cult droid).
22. Don’t boast about your publications unless you have copies with you.
23. Writing science fiction does not mean that I go to Star Trek cons or can’t find a girlfriend.
24. It’s a job. If you want to get paid, you have to work at it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Necronomicon Files (Revised and Expanded)

To go into the history of the Necronomicon would take up more space than I care to use. Besides, the authors of The Necronomicon Files, Daniel Harms and John Gonce, have done a far better job than I could ever dream. Suffice it to say that the Necronomicon was a book of ancient magick which the writer HP Lovecraft used as a theme in many of his horror stories which he wrote in the 1920's and 30's. Although it never existed in material form, Lovecraft referred to it often enough that many people believed it to be a real book. And in 1979, Avon Books came out with a paperback edition.
I remember seeing the paperback edition because all I could think of was "WTF!?!". I did manage to buy the book, but later got rid of it, having no interest in ceremonial magick. I also considered the book a cheap fraud and a poor way to make money. A number of other people have also bought it. Enough to keep this edition of the Necronomicon in print.
NF is divided into a series of essays concerning this forbidden text. It consists of three parts: Literature, Occultism, and Entertainment. The literary section is authored by Harms. Gonce manages the occult and entrainment ones. Harms lists himself as a Lovecraft scholar, whereas Gonce is a practice occultist. The sections do reflect the interests of the authors.
The first section discusses the Necronomicon's place in literature. Naturally, this is mostly about the Cuthulu Mythos stories which Lovecraft wrote for Weird Tales and other magazines of the pulp era. Harms is mostly interested in the tales of lost grimories and other books which may have influenced Lovecraft on his creation. There's also a lot of biographical information on Lovecraft in this part.
Part two places the Necronomicon as part of the western occult tradition. Gonce has little time for people who want to believe in the actual, physical presence of a historical Necronomicon. He takes great pains to show how the likelihood of such a book existing is low. He also rips into the 1979 "Simon" Necronomicon, the one which Avon published and still publishes. This book he finds to be a bastardization of Sumerian religious beliefs. Gonce has more sympathy for writer Kenneth Grant's concept of an "astral" Necronomicon which would exist in a spiritual void.
The final section, on entrainment, is a lengthy discussion of all the places the Necronomicon has appeared in TV and film. This section would make a book in itself. Gonce has seen plenty of Lovecraftian film adaptations.
So where did this "Simon" Necronimicon originate? The authors feel it was money-making scheme cooked up by several people associated with a New York occult store. Known as The Magical Childe, this place was owned and run by Herman Slater until his death in the 1990's. The authors theorize that several people decided to take the whole Necronomicon idea of a lost book with infinite power and run with it. I wish the authors had spent more time following the clues here. Too much of their theory on the origin of the book is based on secondary sources or speculation. No smoking guns or wands.
Still, a very extensive book and worth reading.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr

#6 on the 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels list by KEW is The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr. And here is what the departed Master has to say:

"Sometimes Carr actually did use the supernatural in his detective novels, sometimes he only seemed to do so. The Crooked Hinge does not turn out to be a ghost story, but that won't spare your nerves."

(And by the way, can anyone get me a copy of the Twilight Zone Magazine from where KEW published the second set of his essential lists? I know there are copies out there. Heck, I'd be happy with a photocopy of these few pages.)
The novel begins with a typical English countryside setting. A lawyer, Nathaniel Burrows, has been called in to represent a member of the local gentry, one Sir John Farnleigh. Farnleigh has called Burrows to represent him because Farnleigh's claim to the title of the ancestral lands is in question. Someone else has appeared on the scene claiming to be the real John Farnleigh. Farnleigh had been a passenger on the Titanic and managed to escape the sinking of the ship. However, he spent the rest of his life in the United States with relatives because of an estrangement with his family. Once the head of the family, Sir Dudley Farnleigh had passed on, the younger Farnleigh returned to Britain and claimed his inheritance.
Assembling at the Farnleigh manor to hear the charges of the claimant are:
  • Sir John Farnleigh. But is he?
  • Lady Molly Farnleigh, who has a vested interested in the outcome.
  • The lawyer Nathaniel Burrows.
  • Brian Page, Burrows' friend and a local scholar
  • Patrick Gore, the claimant.
  • Mr. Welkyn, Gore's lawyer.
  • Kennet Murray, Sir John's traveling companion before the Titanic incident.
Murray will attempt to analyze the handwriting samples of both Gore and Farnleigh to determine who is the real Sir John. We also get a brief history lesson about the uses of fingerprinting for identification. When the Titanic sailed, there had been a vogue for fingerprinting, but it's uses in criminal investigation had yet to be established. The Crooked Hinge was published in 1938 when finger prints were routinely used to identify someone.
Since the author was the master of the locked room mystery, there is a murder at the beginning of the book. Needless to say, this tosses a wrench in the whole investigative process. Soon, the reader is introduced to a locked book closet which contains volumes of magickal and erotic texts. The books do figure into the murder, although only a few of the titles are mentioned.
But my favourite introduction is an automata, i.e., a mechanical puppet designed to amaze an audience with it's musical properties. This one dates from the 18th century, appears to be a young woman in finery, and was purchased by an ancestor of Sir John. However, no one has ever figured out how the thing works and has been locked in the before mentioned book closet. It's also in disrepair and is referred to throughout the book as "the hag".
Finally, the Great Detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, is introduced. Dr. Fell was the protagonist of several of Carr's mysteries. He is supposedly patterned from the real life mystery write G. K Chesterton. Dr. Fell doesn't do a whole lot other than wonder around mumbling and making observations. But he provides the analysis which cracks the mystery wide open.
The supernatural elements of this novel are always in the background. There are rumors of some "witch-cult" operating in the nearby village. Sir John had an interest in the occult before he was sent away. His lawyer is famous for representing all kinds of mystics in Britain. A woman who was found dead previous to the events was found with a book on satanic lore.
The Crooked Hinge can be a bit difficult to follow with it's extensive list of suspects. But the book is a fine example of British mystery fiction

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven

We now return to the "Supernatural Horror" category of the KEW list. Here is what Wagner had to say about Simon Raven (1927-2001) and his Doctors Wear Scarlet:

"Is it vampirism of is it a neurotic obsession? Ask the dead. Superb modern vampire novel was filmed as Incense for the Damned (AKA Bloodsuckers)"

The author had quite a colorful life. A great novelist and essay writer, he was regarded up there with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. A notorious party animal, he also manged to spend just about every shilling he made. Education at British public school and service in the army gave him plenty of material for Doctors.
The plot of Doctors follows the career of Richard Fountain, a college graduate destined for great things. We are told about his life in first-person via his good friend Anthony Seymour. Seymour has attended both private school and college with Fountain and observed the rise to prominence. Both have had distinguished careers in the field of ancient history.
However, the book opens with the visit of a policeman to Seymour's office. It appears Fountain has put himself in a spot of trouble while researching religious cults in the Aegean islands. The Greek police want him for questioning. But Fountain has been away for months and no one knows how to find him, although it's assumed he's living in somewhere in Greece. After telling Fountain's life story to the policeman, Seymour and some close friends decide to travel to Greece to find him.
A lot of the book deals with the back story on Fountain. He's from a modest family and rides through school on scholarships. But his success has brought him to the attention of a professor at his college who wishes to manipulate the younger man's career. Worse, the professor has a daughter in need of a suitable husband and poor Richard fits the bill.
When Fountain's friends do find him, the man is a mess and close to death. He's become involved with a seductress named Chriseis who initiates him into some sort of blood cult. The two form a bizarre relationship and it's implied Richard may not have been her first victim.
The book is also wise not even to use the word "vampire" until well after the half-way mark. The author never does say wether or not the vampirism is the product of a disease, dillusion, or the supernatural. All three possibilities are hinted at. Even the conclusion doesn't answer this question. However, precautions are taken which tend to favour the last possibility.
Doctors gives the reader a detailed glimpse in the college life of Cambridge and other of the established British university. The title is take from an invitation to a college banquet where those holding a doctorate must wear scarlet robes. The conclusion of the book even takes place during the annual Michaelmass dinner, a centuries-old tradition.
This is a well-written and very literate book. Not an easy read, but worth the time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Land Under England by Joseph O'Neil

"Another lost-race sort of thing. Remnants of Roman civilization exist underground in a rigidly telepathically controlled society. The protagonist seeks them out as destiny and finds nightmare instead."

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything on this blog and one of the reasons is the difficulty I had getting through Land Under England. Written by Irishman Joseph O'Neil, this was one of the forgotten masterpieces on KEW's essential list. The author had a job in the Irish ministry of education, not hard to believe because he did like his wordage. Not that being a verbose author is such a bad thing; look what Will Shakespeare was able to accomplish. But all the narrative does make for a tiring read.
The book is narrated from the POV of a man searching underground for his father. The narrator is descended from a long line of Roman settlers of England and matures near the remnants of the Hadrian wall. In his family there is a tradition of finding an underground entrance to a subterranean world. Here, an entire company of Romans descended below the earth around the time of the Empire's fall. The narrator's father, after returning from WW1 shell-shocked, became obsessed with finding the entrance and disappeared. The narrator eventually follows in the footsteps of his father, although it is never precisely said how he finds the entrance.
After traveling through caves illuminated by phosphorescent glow, and battles with savage reptiles, he eventually finds an underground Roman civilization. But the civilization has become fused into a group mind. Somehow in the far past, telepathic humans were born who used their abilities to control the rest of the tribe. Known as "Masters of Knowledge", they see to it that ordinary humans are trained as tools in service of the Roman state. In fact, these Romans have no need of slaves since every human being is in service to the state.
The average Romans are described as "automatons", show no emotion, don't speak, and exist to do whatever task is needed for the maintenance of society. Consequently, the underground cities have no houses, just hedges to separate the workers into divisions of labor. Beneath the "Masters of Knowledge" are the Commanders, who supervise work gangs via their telepathic abilities. When the narrator first encounters the Romans, his mind is probed by a Commander who is shocked to discover there are some people immune to his abilities.
Eventually, the Roman Masters decide the narrator must be "absorbed" into the state. They decide to do this by showing him how the state functions, hoping he will see the error of his will. The narrator, on the other hand keeps insisting he get to see his father. Finally, the Romans force him from their civilization, as they figure he'll willingly come back to them, rather than try to find his way around in the darkness.
Where Land soars is in it's description of the underground world. Hollow Earth theory was always a guilty pleasure of mine and I delighted in all the literature it spawned. Give me a DVD of Attack of the Mole Men, the soundtrack to Journey to the Center of the Earth and I am one happy geek. This book has the most vivid imagery of what an underground world might be like I've ever encountered. He shows us vast seas illuminated by ionic displays. The seas are surrounded by swamps populated by predatory toads and spiders the size of lions. Everywhere, the phosphorescent glow of giant mushrooms illuminate the landscape.
But there's not a lot of dialogue here. Since the Romans communicate by thought, they place ideas in the narrators head to describe themselves. At least half of the book is his impressions of the subterranean world. All of this can make for a hard verbal slog.
I can see why KEW put it on his list, since it has the best visual concept of what an underground world might be like. But it's not an easy read by any means.