Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

FFB: The Feast of Bacchus - Ernest G. Henham

Henry Reed had pitted his strength against the Strath and the influence of the house had triumphed.

THE STORY: Henry Reed inherits the Strath, a dilapidated mansion in the rural hamlet of Thorlund, and plans on a thorough renovation. Included in his rehab plans is a clean-up of the untended garden beloved for its wild beauty by Dr. Berry, the local reverend who was allowed private access to the garden for decades. Dr. Berry tries to dissuade Reed from changing anything about the house or its gardens. The American disregards the reverend scoffing at his implied dire warning. Within a few days the sinister influence of the house that locals have gossiped about for years manifest itself when Reed is found strangled on the threshold of the Strath (providing us with a minor murder mystery element) ushering in a cycle of bizarre events, personality transformations and explosions of violence.

THE CHARACTERS: The Feast of Bacchus (1907) is a remarkable work of fiction not only for its lush writing and unusual plot, but for the meticulously detailed characters, some of whom act as archetypes. Dr. Berry is the antiquarian of the novel obsessed with the past, especially ancient Greek history and culture and is the voice the reminds everyone that the past is inescapable. Maude Juxon represents the quickly fading conventions of the superficial woman who marries for money and regards rearing children as a tedious task better suited for nannies than real mothers. Flora Neill is the embodiment of "the New Woman" who dares to flout traditional views like marriage being the only recourse for women's happiness. Mr. Price serves as the voice of all who fear the advances of technology, machinery and science, to the break down of modern civilization and all they hold dear. Take all of these people and add in the Gothic notion of the house as living entity with a sinister influence (a word repeatedly used throughout the text) and you have the makings for an unusual haunted house story that melds metaphysics with philosophy and satirical commentary on the March of Progress. Everyone who enters the Strath succumbs to one of two moods symbolized by the evil masks of Tragedy and Comedy which hang in the hallway of the house.

ATMOSPHERE: This is perhaps one of the richest novels I've read this year. The story is not only dense with incident and meaning, the writing is arresting in its expression and intent. While the characters tend towards intellectuals and quasi-aristocrats speaking in an arch wit reminiscent of a Restoration comedy there are just as many common folk who reflect a wisdom often more profound. A passage featuring a farmer who speaks in a cleverly rendered dialect is full of portent and foreshadowing of dire events to come as well as well done sequences with anecdotes of the past that read like miniature short stories. The dialogue has a tendency to be didactic but never once does the reader get the feeling that he is being lectured by an erudite professor. The supernatural incidents are few but so polished and uniquely rendered that Henham transcends all motifs and formula of the old-fashioned haunted house story. He may have even invented scenes that have since become familiar tropes of the subgenre.

The mythology and culture of Ancient Greece play a heavy part in the novel as is suggested by the title. One of the most fascinating chapters ("Act III, Scene IV. Sentimental Comedy") is Dr. Berry's sermon delivered as a disguised method of wooing Maude Juxon in which he talks of how all Western art -- literature, poetry, music, singing, and theater -- have their origins in "the worship of false gods." After reading his insightful observations it will be difficult for anyone not to see the similarities between a church of any type, the services and rituals performed there, and a theater and all of its styles of performance and stage techniques. His lecture is not fiction either. All Dr. Berry's points are derived from the works of 19th century antiquarians and Greek scholars who first compared Greek religious rites and modern theater. This dependence on theatrical conventions is so prevalent that Henham cannot resist ending his novel with a masked ball in which the forces of good and evil are personified by two figures masked as Tragedy and Comedy. The partygoers are in for more than mere dancing and merriment when knives and swords are brandished to the accompaniment of jingling bells, mad laughter and a roaring fire.

A Bacchanal by Jan Brueghel & Hendrik Van Balen
ca. 1608 - 1616. from the Speed Art Museum

INNOVATIONS: There is a scene in which Dr. Berry receives messages from the ancient spirits that inhabit the Strath via automatic writing. He transcribes these messages in ancient Greek. When he comes out of his surreal trance and reads the pages he wrote unknowingly, he is astonished that the grammar and vocabulary is that of Attic Greek, an ancient language rarely encountered in the texts he is working on. He happens to be translating Greek poetry by Sappho at the start of the novel and those texts have been altered slightly to reflect modern Greek language. Dr. Berry is convinced that he has been used a conduit for the long dead spirits of his much respected heroes and heroines of antiquity. But to his horror the manuscript ends with a single phrase in English: "Damn you, Professor. You were right." He knows this admission can only have come from the spirit of Henry Reed.

As the story progresses each character transforms and they become inhabited by the forces of Tragedy or Comedy according to their own closely held secrets. Flora is driven to attempt murder out of jealousy, Maude faints when she sees visions of her own murderous thoughts. Conversely, Dr. Berry gives in to his latent sensuality and falls in love with Maude. The house exerts its influence not only on living beings but inanimate objects including the two Greek masks with a truly horrible secret about how they were created and the diary of Winnifred Hooper, a long dead former occupant of the Strath. Just listening to the diary be read aloud, for example, allows a personality transformation to take place.

The entire structure of the novel, subtitled "A Study in Dramatic Atmosphere", is modeled after a work of drama. The sections of the novel become acts of a play, the chapters are scenes labeled after various classical types of poetry and styles of playwriting like melodrama, musical comedy, and even Puppenspiele (German for puppet show). Enhancing the overall feel of a visit to a theatrical production Henham also includes an Overture, Entr'acte, Interlude and a chapter tilted "Scene Shifting" (a phrase stagehands are well familiar with) in which we learn the terrible origins of the two masks carved and decorated by a corrupt and immoral German toymaker named Joseph Falk.

QUOTES: "They that be broke be took, sir. When I be broke I'll be took, and my son will say, 'Good-bye, father' and wait for 'is turn."

"Like us the Strath has its moods. Sometimes it is happy, and often it is sorrowful. It must either laugh or groan. And now you will change it all. You will restore the house, dig up the garden...and lay the Strath out like a dead body."

"The garden is your inheritance. That is the soul of the Strath. This is the dry body."

"You can't strike a bargain with unrepentant souls. You must employ drastic measures, and the only ways of getting rid of a spiritual nuisance is by using fresh bricks and mortar."

They who behold a tragedy see only the outward passions of the actors; of the influence which is behind they can see nothing. So one may see the tree tormented by the wind, but not see the wind.

"The idea of calling me wicked!" exclaimed Mrs. Juxon indignantly. "A married woman has certain flirting privileges, but an unmarried girl has none."

"It is because the house has a soul," went on Conway, as though she had not answered. "Because it lives and breathes, and has moods like us. [...] The Strath resembles you and me, in that it contains spirit, which, while it remains, preserves the fabric from corruption."

Squarson - a squire who is also a rector. A neologism made from combining the words "squire" and "parson".

Thymele is one of the many Greek theatrical terms I rediscovered. I'm sure I must've been first introduced to the concept of the church and the theater being related in "Intro to Theater History" back in my undergrad days but I've long forgotten all the terminology. The thymele is the name given to the ancient altar positioned in front of the orchestra in the first Greek theaters. All the plays were offered as performances and worship to specific gods and the altar was where sacrifices were placed.

When Conway asks how far reaching are the legends of the ghosts in the Strath Mr. Price remarks, offhandedly, "About the time Wolfe was chasing Montcalm out of Quebec." as if everyone is equipped with a memory of such arcane history. I hadn't a clue what that meant. Price is referring to James Wolfe, Louis Montcalm and the capture of Quebec City in 1759. Apparently Wolfe was a well regarded British general who made his name in that battle. Lost to history and me, I'm sad to report. Maybe Canadians would know the two men better. Henham, after all, lived there for a while and was fascinated especially with the history of Quebec having written The Plowshare and the Sword: A Tale of Old Quebec (1903).

Dashing Ernest Henham, credited as
"formerly Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company",
as seen in Wide World Magazine, Aug 1901
THE AUTHOR: Ernest Henham was born in London, lived in Canada for a while where he worked for the Hudson Bay Company. Under his own name he wrote the Gothic horror novel Tenebrae (1898) among numerous other novels of all genres well regarded by his contemporaries. Around 1908 he turned to writing novels about Dartmoor where he had retired to recuperate from ill health. These books were published under the pseudonym "John Trevena".

EASY TO FIND? Several of Henham's books including The Feast of Bacchus as well as a few under his John Trevena pen name have been reprinted by Valancourt Books. This is the edition I own and I'd say the only one worth having for its usual handsome design, easy readability and, more importantly, for Gerald Monsman's introductory literary essay on the novel and Henham's life. Valancourt offers all their books in print, digital and now audio book editions. There is no audio version of The Feast of Bacchus, but there ought to be. I cannot imagine a better candidate for that radio drama style of reading a book than this chilling tale of ghosts, possession, obsession and madness.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Sherlock Holmes" - Sparks

Fog matters to you and me, but it can't touch Sherlock Holmes

This song has been covered a couple times by other minor indie rock groups, but the original by 80s new wave group Sparks is still the best. Loads of YouTube videos use this song mostly showing stills and video clips of Cumberbatch. Pass on all of those. I'm going with this well done video showing good ol' stalwart Holmes actor Basil Rathbone in a series of scenes from his movies.


Spend the night with Sherlock Holmes
Hold me tight like Sherlock Holmes
Just pretend I'm Sherlock Holmes

Written by Ronald D Mael, Russell Craig Mael •  ©1982, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Imagem Music Inc

Friday, October 14, 2016

FFB: The Goddess: A Demon - Richard Marsh

THE STORY: John Ferguson witnesses the gruesome murder of his neighbor and gambling rival at the hands of a knife wielding cloaked figure. Moments later a woman appears at his bedroom window. He lets her in and sees she is drenched in blood. She cannot remember her name, where she lives, how she came to be at his window or why she is wearing a blood-soaked cloak. In fact, she can recall nothing not even whether John is the name of a man or woman. Ferguson is bewitched by her beauty, vaguely recalls having seen her somewhere and is certain she has nothing to do with his neighbor's death despite her gruesome state of her clothing and the coincidence of her sudden appearance so shortly after the murder. He sets out to discover who she is, why she came to the building and who really killed Edwin Lawrence and why.

CHARACTERS: The Goddess: A Demon (1900) is narrated by John Ferguson, a typical sensation novel protagonist of the early 20th century. He's ridiculously wealthy but we have no idea what he does for living. Extremely tall, with an intimidatingly athletic build and a volatile temper Ferguson is very much like the numerous musclebound playboys who will turn up in American hero pulps and comic books fighting criminals as a lark. He has a self-deprecating wit often calling himself an idiot and stupid for not seeing things clearly and acting on impulse. But his talent for quick put downs and emasculating language calls to mind the smart aleck private eyes of the 1930s and 1940s. There are several times when others comment on Ferguson's "persuasive manner" -- a euphemistic and ironic way to call attention to his penchant for talking with his fists and roughhousing disagreeable men. There's a lot to like about Ferguson even if he has a tendency (as do many of Marsh's characters) to drone on in an artificial manner of speech, even for an Edwardian man: "Mr Morley, be at ease, fear nothing. You are the sole proprietor of your own tongue, use it to preserve silence..." A gentlemanly, yet snide way to tell someone to shut up.

The woman is soon identified as a notable actress through some rudimentary detective work occasioned by formulaic clues: a letter signed B, a handkerchief with the initials E.M., and -- most convenient of all -- a photograph stamped on the reverse with the name of a well known professional studio. This last allows Ferguson not only to confirm the woman's identity but find out her home address. That's the extent of the detective work. There are a handful of police characters led by a generic inspector, but the investigation of the murder takes a backseat to the uncovering of the woman's identity and Ferguson's determination to clear her name. He goes to great lengths to protect even to manufacturing a patently false case for himself as the killer. Inspector Symonds sees through it almost immediately.

Supporting characters include a series of servants, various ruffians, and notably the unctuous Dr. Hume, a "mental pathologist" who serves as Ferguson's foil.  Hume is a quasi-villain just as determined to prove that Ferguson is not only obstructing justice but that he is most likely insane. He plays detective by breaking into Ferguson's room and finding the incriminating bloodstained cloak that Ferguson foolishly wadded up and shoved in the back of his wardrobe rather than destroying it. Dr. Hume actually believes nearly everyone he encounters is mad in one way or another. We get to listen to his theories about all sorts of mental illnesses from outright insanity to "brain fever."  He's an insufferable ass when he's interacting with Ferguson and Marsh clearly has some less than favorable ideas about the arrogance and overwrought egos of men of science.

Another foil to Ferguson is Miss Adair, actress and roommate to the amnesiac woman known as Bessie. The scenes between these two offer Marsh more opportunities to revel in his sarcastic sense of humor which enlivens a story that has a tendency to spill over into indulgently lurid melodrama. Miss Adair is amused by Ferguson's head over heels infatuation with her roommate and can't help but ridicule his beauty worship.

The criminal activity is not just confined to savage murder. A stereotyped Jewish moneylender named Isaac Bernstein plays an important part in the story. Money, debts, forgery and financial chicanery all rear their ugly heads by the midpoint. At the start Ferguson was seen gambling at cards with Lawrence who the reader knows has cheated him. Lawrence has a habit of keeping a "debt diary" which describes how Ferguson owes him a total £1880. No better motive could have been handed to the police. Couple this with Dr. Hume's discovery of the bloody cloak and things do not look good at all for our temperamental hero.

Richard Marsh,
in his later years, circa 1910s
QUOTES"It is possible for persons of even ripened years to feel surprised, as you will discover when you yourself attain to years of discretion."

With scant ceremony he endeavored, without a word of explanation, to force his way into the house. I am not a man with whom every one finds it easy to play that kind of game. When I am pushed, I push. Placing my hand against his chest, he went backwards across the pavement at a run.

"I don't fancy, Mr. Ferguson, that all women are built exactly on Bessie's lines."
"Would that they were. Miss Moore is the stuff of which our mothers should be made."
She looked at me a little sideways; I was conscious of it, though I myself looked straight ahead.
"Are you married, Mr. Ferguson?"
"No, I am not so fortunate."
"Ah! I shouldn't be surprised if you were so fortunate a little later on."

He was an out-size in policemen; all of five foot ten, well set up, with a carriage which denoted muscle. Fortunately for my purpose, his face did not point to a surplus of brains; he struck me as being stupid as I was.

Coroner at the inquest: "Witness, look at me."
Ferguson, who has previously been evading his questions with banter:  "If you desire it, with the greatest pleasure. Though there doesn't seem to be much to look at."

THINGS I LEARNED: The edition I read is a modern reprint and heavily annotated by Richard Marsh expert Minna Vuohelainen. There are over 100 footnotes on period vocabulary, literary allusions and London geography. Some of it interesting, but much of it unnecessary. Does a literary scholar really need to footnote well known literary figures like Hercules, Samson, Echo; basic Latin like non compos mentis, ipso facto, ergo; as well as defining words and terms like lasso, promissory note, and letting us know that "all the kings horses and all the king's men" refers to Humpty Dumpty?  This is patronizing scholarship at its most annoying. I kept flipping back to read all of the notes with increasing astonishment.  I did think the London geographical notes were vital and useful. But so many of the endnotes were insulting in their pedantry.

But there were also blatant oversights in these endnotes. Like the paragraph in which we learn that Miss Adair and Ferguson are seated while traveling up to the seventh floor in an electric lift. I had no idea early elevators in England were equipped with seats for the passengers. Vuohelainen makes sure to give us the dates of the invention of electricity, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the elevator each time they are mentioned but neglects to point out the fascinating detail of seats in the lift when mentioned. Twice in a single paragraph, no less.

Ferguson lives in what must have been the 1900 version of a state-of-the-art luxury apartment building. It is seven stories tall, has electric lights not gas, two electrically powered elevators (one for servants, another for residents), a full staff of valets and maids for each floor plus a housekeeper and cook who provided breakfast for residents. He mentions at one point in the book that he carries more money on him than most people: £100 in notes and £20 in sovereigns. This is the equivalent of £14,000 (US$11,471) in 2016 currency! At no point on the book do we ever learn what he does for a living, but it's obvious he's wealthy whatever his profession. His cavalier attitude and quick temper might have a lot to do with the entitlement of the rich.

Interestingly, though the book is very much about gambling, spendthrift lifestyle, usury and financial irresponsibility Vuohelainen does not discuss money, finance or wealth at all in her lengthy introduction. Rather she devotes much of her lecturing on a section entitled "Modernity and mental health" going so far as to cite specific usage of words like idiot, lunatic, maniac and all references to madness to drive home her point. But to my mind the use of the word idiot, almost always spoken by Ferguson about himself, as well as all the other synonyms are all used quite obviously in the vernacular.  Only when Dr. Hume is talking about madness are any of these terms directly related to mental health or lack of it. Throughout the novel it is Hume alone who is obsessed with mental illness and madness.

EASY TO FIND?  Thanks to Valancourt Books The Goddess: A Demon is available in their usual handsomely designed paperback books as well as a digital version. There are other POD reprints of many of Richard Marsh's books since they've all lapsed the copyright laws but I'd recommend any of the Valancourt editions. The biographical information in Vuohelainen's introduction I found to be the most interesting. The "literary analysis" I thought to be mostly misguided and spurious and ended up skipping over almost all of it.  There are also seven appendices on topics incidentally raised in the novel such as "Alcohol and personality" and "Women, nerves and sexuality".  Of these appendices the most compelling is the collection of contemporary newspaper reviews of Marsh's novel. It's always interesting to read what people of the time thought of what amounts to the precursor of pulp fiction.