Sunday, April 28, 2013

Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead

The Wordsworth Editions volume Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead includes most of the short fiction of Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932). Whitehead’s stories were originally published in various pulp magazines, most notably Weird Tales.

Whitehead was a friend of H. P. Lovecraft. He corresponded with Lovecraft for many years and Lovecraft spent several weeks at Whitehead’s home in Florida in 1931. Whitehead spent many years living in the West Indies, on the island of Saint Croix in the US Virgin Islands. These islands were formerly the Danish West Indies. Denmark sold the islands to the US in 1916. Whitehead was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopalian Church in 1912 and spent the rest of his life as a clergyman, writing fiction in his spare time.

Many of Whitehead’s stories were set in the West Indies and he was able to draw upon his considerable knowledge of the beliefs of the islanders, and in particular on his knowledge of obeah and voodoo and related cults. His stories are an interesting mix of such beliefs with his own Christianity. In one story a clergyman is called in to save the life of an islander doomed to die of a voodoo curse, but the Christian religion proves to be stronger than voodoo, even in the minds of the islanders.

Most of Whitehead’s stories are narrated in the first person by Gerald Canevin, Whitehead’s alter ego. Canevin is, like his creator, a writer.

The stories cover a very wide range of subjects. Most could be classed as horror although some are closer to fantasy. Voodoo of course plays a major role, although they also encompass many other popular horror sub-genres, even including a werewolf story (a werewolf who is also a new York gangster).

The West Indian stories are in fact a cycle of interconnecting stories. Whitehead was clearly fascinated by the adventures of Saul Macartney, one of the chief lieutenants of the infamous pirate Fawcett, and he returns to the idea several times, slowly building up the background to the original story.

The author’s great love of the West Indies is apparent in all his stories. This was a magical place for him, a place where the rule of reason did not apply, a place where the occult was a living presence. He had a great fondness for all the inhabitants of these islands, regardless of race.

A fine collection showcasing the work of an unjustly neglected writer of weird tales. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Leavenworth Case

Anna Katharine Green’s 1878 novel The Leavenworth Case is often cited, incorrectly, as the first mystery novel written by a woman. It is nonetheless definitely a mystery novel and certainly one of the earliest to be written by a woman. The crime fiction genre itself was still relatively speaking in its infancy at the time this novel was published.

While the novel is a true example of detective fiction it also has much in common with the sensation novels that were so popular at the time.

New York-born Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) was the daughter of a prominent criminal lawyer and she went to great lengths to make the novel as realistic as possible in terms of the criminal law, and with such success that it was used at the law school at Yale as a teaching aid on the subject of circumstantial evidence. Green went on to have a very successful literary career, publishing around 40 books.

The Leavenworth Case plunges us straight into the action. Mr Leavenworth has been found shot to death in the library of his home. The nature of his injuries makes it certain that this was not suicide but murder. Mr Leavenworth was a very wealthy man. He had no children of his own but had adopted two nieces, Mary and Eleanore. The terms of his will were rather curious - he left virtually all of his estate to one niece while the other was to get very little indeed.

It is clear, for various reasons, that the murderer could not have left the house after the murder until after the body was discovered the following morning, so one of the people in the house had to be the killer. Both nieces are potential suspects, as is Mr Leavenworth’s private secretary Trueman Harwell and the mysterious visitor who had introduced himself as Mr LeRoy Robbins. Mary’s maid, Hannah Chester, disappeared on the night of the murder, making her a suspect as well.

Mr Leavenworth’s lawyer was out of town at the time of the murder, leaving a junior partner in the firm, a Mr Raymond (the narrator of the novel) to represent the interests of the Misses Leavenworth. Mr Raymond will find himself assisting the celebrated police detective Ebenezer Gryce in his investigation of the case.

There are plenty of red herrings and plenty of ambiguous clues. There are incriminating letters, there is a secret marriage, a key to the library that seems to point the finger of suspicion at one of the suspects. Structurally this novel is quite close to the model of the golden age detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s although the tone is much more Victorian. Mr Raymond does not believe that either of the Misses Leavenworth could be guilty - such refined ladies did not do such things. Mr Gryce on the other hand has no such illusions about the fairer sex.

The rather leisurely pacing and the at times histrionic tone points to the novel’s affinities with the sensation novels of Victorian authors like Sheridan le Fanu, Wilkie Collins and Mary E. Braddon. The novel is rather too long, although modern readers accustomed to the long-winded crime fiction of our own age will probably not find this to be too much of a problem. They might find the somewhat melodramatic tone harder to forgive. Personally I like 19th century novels and I had no real problems with those aspects of the book.

The plotting has the kind of ingenuity that will appeal to readers with a liking for the puzzle-solving style of crime fiction.

The Leavenworth Case was in its day a major bestseller, racking up sales of 750,000 copies within a few years, a very impressive figure for that period. Green’s detective novels were also quite influential, inspiring a certain Agatha Christie to take up crime writing.

Worth reading for its historical importance, and it’s fairly entertaining as well.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer

I’m excessively fond of stories involving occult detectives or psychic detectives. This type of story had a considerable popularity in the early 20th century, although by the 1920s the vogue seemed to have run its course. The best-known psychic detectives are of course William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder and Algernon Blackwood’s Dr Silence. Also worth reading are Kate O’Brien Prichard and Vernon Hesketh-Prichard’s Flaxman Low stories and Sax Rohmer’s tales of the Dream Detective. One of the lesser-known examples is Aylmer Vance, created by Alice and Claude Askew.

I know virtually nothing about the authors aside from the facts that they were married in 1900 and apparently both died in 1917. The stories are all set in England so I assume the authors were English.

If there’s one thing that annoys Aylmer Vance it’s being referred to as a professional. He is a dilettante, and proud of it. It’s worth remembering that the word dilettante did not always have a pejorative connotation. Aylmer Vance investigates strange events, such as haunted houses and other phenomena that do not appear to have a rational explanation.

Any good detective has to have a Dr Watson, and Aylmer Vance’s Dr Watson is Dexter (who also serves as the narrator of the stories). Dexter is a barrister. He has clairvoyant powers although he is unaware of his gift until he meets Aylmer Vance.

Wordsworth’s collection Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer includes eight Aylmer Vance stories. One assumes that these represent the authors’ entire output of such stories although it is impossible to be certain. Regrettably Wordsworth have not included an introduction, which would have been extremely useful in this case.

The ghosts that Aylmer Vance hunts are not necessarily malevolent. Lady Green-Sleeves for instance is an entirely harmless and rather charming ghost. Other ghosts, as in the story The Indissoluble Bond, are more ambiguous. Even Aylmer Vance himself has to admit that some mysteries are beyond solving. They involve forces that are so little understood that they are destined to remain mysteries.

Ghosts can also sometimes be manifestations of otherwise positive attributes, such as the creative spirit, in the story The Fire Unquenchable.

Vance does not confine his investigations to ghosts; the story The Vampire deals, as its tile suggests, with vampires. In this case Scottish vampires.

Vance also encounters a woman with the powers of a medium, and we discover that being a medium can be a very hazardous occupation indeed.

Aylmer Vance has his failures as well as his successes, and success sometimes comes at a very high price. There are houses so haunted that the haunting can only be dealt with by razing the house to the ground.

Most of the stories involve actual supernatural events, but in some cases there may be a rational explanation. Or at least there might be the possibility of a rational explanation. The authors are not overly concerned with wrapping things up neatly; they are content in some stories to leave a certain ambiguity about the ending.

These are not stories to be taken too seriously. They were clearly written as entertainments and on that level they succeed very well. Fans of ghost stories and psychic detectives will find this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Devil’s Bride

Seabury Quinn wrote quite a few short stories featuring the occult detective Jules de Grandin. The Devil’s Bride, published in 1932, was the only de Grandin novel.

Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) was an American writer who was a prolific contributor to the pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Devil’s Bride is a tale of devil-worshippers in the United States. When a young woman, Alice Hume, disappears in mysterious (in fact seemingly impossible) circumstances Jules de Grandin soon finds himself on the trail of Satanists.

Alice Hume’s ancestor, David Hume, was himself of mysterious origins. It’s not until de Grandin discovers a manuscript hidden in an old Bible that the truth about Hume’s origins comes out. As de Grandin suspected, there was a connection between David Hume and a sect of devil-worshippers that flourished centuries ago in the Near East. The remnants of that sect survive and they are now operating in New Jersey.

Alice Hume is a descendant of the priests of that cult, and now the survivors of that sect want her back to serve as their high priestess.

What is at stake though is more than just an obscure Near Eastern cult. It is nothing less than an atheist conspiracy, financed by the Russian communists, to undermine western civilisation. This is a conspiracy theory worthy of Dennis Wheatley.

Jules de Grandin and his associates, a doctor named Troubridge (the narrator of the tale) and a detective from the Sûreté in Paris named Renouard, are up against fiends who practise human sacrifice. The conspiracy is also linked to the infamous Leopard Men of West Africa, practitioners of cannibalism.

This is a particularly lurid tale. Quinn never misses an opportunity to have one of his female characters naked. There’s more than a hint of perversity here. There are drugs and there is the dreaded bulala-gwai which is dispersed in a fine mist and comes in two forms - one form renders anyone who comes into contact with it

There’s also plenty of action as de Grandin and his colleagues pursue the Satanists both in the US and in Africa. There are Black Masses and there are primitive jungle rites. As you may have guessed this is a very politically incorrect novel. Delightfully so in fact.

Jules de Grandin is an entertaining hero, a bit like a low-rent (and much more violent) version of Hercule Poirot with his outrageous French accent. He differs from other occult detectives of this period in several ways. Apart from the much pulpier style of this story it’s also doubtful if the occult elements actually count as occult. There are no actual supernatural happenings. It’s more like a sleazy crime story with occult trappings. The criminals are all too human, with the occult essentially serving the interests of fiendish criminal activity. The Devil’s Bride is really a thriller which happens to involve devil-worshippers rather than straightforward criminals.

While the conspiracy theory elements are very reminiscent of Dennis Wheatley, in Wheatley’s books the occult was always a real presence. Quinn simply uses the occult to make an outrageous pulp thriller more outrageous and even sleazier.

The Devil’s Bride is, despite these reservations, a great deal of fun. It belongs at the more disreputable end of the pulp fiction spectrum, but it’s still worth making the acquaintance of Jules de Grandin. Recommended.

The Creation Oneiros paperback edition of The Devil’s Bride also includes a Jules de Grandin short story, The House of Golden Masks, an even more lurid tale of white slavery.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Moon Pool

Abraham Merritt (1884-1943), always known as A. Merritt, was a very successful journalist who wrote fiction in his spare time. Most of his stories appeared originally in the pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s and were later republished in novel form.

The Moon Pool, published in 1919, is one of his early works. Like so many of his tales this is a lost world story. The narrator is a scientist named Goodwin. He is told a fantastic story by a fellow scientist  of strange happenings in the ruins of the ancient city of Nan-Matal, situated on a series of artificial islands in the Pacific (and inspired by the real-life ruins of Nan Madol in Micronesia). Accompanied by an Irish-American Royal Air Force aviator and a Norwegian sea captain named Olaf Huldricksson he finds a portal on one of the islands. The portal leads to a chamber in which is found the Moon Pool.

Another scientist, a Russian named Marakinoff, has also discovered the portal. He hopes it will lead him to knowledge that will make the newly arisen Soviet Union the greatest power on Earth. He offers to co-operate with Goodwin and his companions but clearly he cannot be trusted.

The Moon Pool leads to a world far beneath the surface of the Earth, a world inhabited by the descendants of the builders of Nan-Matal and various other races including highly intelligent frog-people.

The priestess Yolara and her consort Lugur (who comes of a race of sturdy dwarves) serve a strange entity known as the Shining One. The Shining One is not so much a creature as a kind artificially created thing composed of lunar lights and force fields. The Shining One possesses great intelligence but it has become a thing of evil, creating a horde of dead-alive zombie-like followers. Yolara and Lugur rule this underground world.

The Shining One was created by the Silent Ones, three members of a very ancient race. They intended their creation to open up new worlds of knowledge for them but they failed to foresee that they would eventually lose control of it and that it would turn malevolent. The Silent Ones are kindly, wise and inquisitive but their pride led them to attempt too much when they created The Shining One.

The Silent Ones are served by their handmaiden Lakla.

Dr Goodwin and his friends are caught up in a power struggle between Lakla and the Silent Ones on one side and Yolara and the Shining One on the other. This power struggle will have consequences not just for the this world beneath ours, but for civilisation on the surface of the Earth as well. The ambitions of the Shining One know no boundaries.

The Silent Ones believe they may be able to prevail through the power of fear, but if that fails they will need to call on a still stronger power, that of love.

Merritt is at pains to make it clear that the many extraordinary events of this tale have natural rather than supernatural explanations, so while the story appears to be fantasy it was intended as science fiction. Merritt was obviously much impressed by the new and very strange understandings of the world revealed by quantum physics and relativity, and he uses this new scientific knowledge as an explanation for events that would otherwise seem supernatural.

Merritt had a seemingly limitless capacity for inventing new and fantastic lost worlds. He was very much influenced by Rider Haggard’s great fantasy-adventure novel She, and in turn Merritt influenced writers such as Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s concept of the Great Old Ones and the idea of strange ancient beings whose immense powers make them appear as gods obviously owe a debt to The Moon Pool in particular.

Like all of Merritt’s great novels The Moon Pool is both an exciting and action-filled adventure and a stupendous feat of the imagination. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die was Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel and it’s a considerable improvement over his first effort, Casino Royale.

This time Bond finds himself not only up against his old foe, the Russian spy assassination agency SMERSH (Death To Spies), but against a new and even more formidable enemy, voodoo. And these two threats are combined in one man, the sinister Mr Big.

Mr Big is a half-French and half-black giant of a man who runs the underworld in Harlem, and in fact controls the black underworld throughout the United States and in the Caribbean as well. Mr Big had worked with Allied intelligence agencies during the war but switched his allegiance to Moscow and now combines espionage with crime.

Mr Big can rely on unquestioning obedience from his black underlings since they believe him to be the dreaded Baron Samedi himself, the most feared of all the voodoo gods. Or at the very least they believe him to be Baron Samedi’s Zombie.

Mr Big has come to the attention of the British Secret Service in a rather curious way. Huge numbers of gold coins have started turning up, mostly in the US. The coins date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries but none were minted later than 1650. This has led M to the conclusion that someone has discovered the legendary treasure trove of the infamous English pirate Sir Henry Morgan, believed to be buried somewhere in Jamaica. What’s really causing concern is that this vast treasure seems to be being used to finance Russian espionage in the US, and there are indications that the notorious black crime lord and known SMERSH agent Mr Big is behind the plot.

The possible Jamaican connection is the reason the CIA have called on the help of the British Secret Service. This will be a joint operation with the CIA, which is likely to cause some problems since the CIA is not supposed to work within the US itself and the FBI is likely to be at best unhelpful, at worst openly hostile.

But Bond will be working with his old friend Felix Leiter of the CIA which should make things somewhat easier.

Finding Mr Big is easy enough but there’s a complication in the form of a beautiful white Haitian woman known as Solitaire. Solitaire is the descendent of French colonial planters and is believed to have the second sight. Mr Big employs her to check on whether his underlings are being truthful with him or not. Solitaire can always tell if a person is lying. She is so valuable to him that Mr Big intends to marry her. Solitaire is being kept by him as a virtual prisoner and Bond soon discovers that she wants out. But can he trust her? And what kind of hold does Mr Big have over her?

Mr Big has agents everywhere and Bond has only been in New York for a short while before it is obvious that he is being shadowed, and when Solitaire flees with him it is obvious that Mr Big will stop at nothing to get her back, and to arrange a suitably artistic death for Bond. Mr Big considers himself to be a true artist of crime.

The action moves from New York to Florida and eventually to Jamaica. As in so many of the Bond adventures there will be plenty of action both on land and at sea, and under the sea. Bond will have to run the gauntlet of sharks and barracuda driven mad with blood lust (caused by Mr Big’s habit of throwing large quantities of blood and offal into the sea around his island lair with just that intention).

Fleming pulls off a real tour-de-force of an ending in this one. The action is non-stop and voodoo is an ever-present threat.

Fleming prided himself on the quantity and quality of research he did for his novels. Not being an American I can’t myself say how accurate his research on the US was but he certainly makes great use of American locations, and especially of American railroads (which Fleming considered to be far more exciting and far more romantic than the railways of Britain). Trains always make great locations for thrillers and Fleming uses them with great skill in Live and Let Die.

Of all the Bond novels this is probably the least politically correct - much more so than the 1970s movie adaptation of the novel. But political incorrectness is not something that bothers me and Mr Big is a superbly realised villain, a true diabolical criminal mastermind, intelligent and exceptionally dangerous. And I adore any thriller that involves voodoo.

Solitaire is a memorable heroine. Fleming liked his heroines to be exotic and she certainly fits the bill in that respect. He also liked his heroines to be somewhat ambiguous - Bond has to take a very big chance indeed in trusting her. And Bond’s interest in her is certainly more than merely professional - he is captivated by her beauty and by her mystery.

Live and Let Die was adapted for film in 1973 as the first of the Roger Moore Bond movies.

Live and Let Die sees Fleming really hit his stride with the Bond series. The plot is outrageous but is combined with Fleming’s habit of describing espionage in a grittily realistic way, and with generous helpings of sex and violence. It’s a potent cocktail and one that Fleming was exceptionally good at mixing and this is a real crackerjack of a spy thriller. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The French Powder Mystery

The French Powder Mystery was the second of the Ellery Queen mysteries by Manfred Bennington Lee (Manford Lepofsky) and Frederic Dannay (Daniel Nathan). It appeared in 1930.

The book certainly gets off to a stylish start. French’s Department Store in New York has a window exhibition of modernist furniture. Every day at the same time an employee of the store stages a demonstration of the features of this furniture, including in this case a foldaway bed. On this particular day when the employee presses the button to unfold the bed a corpse is revealed. It belongs to the wife of the owner of the store.

As you expect in an Ellery Queen novel there are plenty of suspects and plenty of clues. But which clues are the ones that matter? The murder could have been committed by almost any member of the French household as Mr French has private apartments on the top floor. There are seven keys to this private apartment, and those keys will assume considerable importance. The murder could also have been committed by any one of several employees of the store, including all the members of the board of directors (a meeting of the board took place in Mr French’s private rooms on the morning of the murder).

The murder might also be linked to a drug ring - the murdered woman’s daughter is a drug addict.

Inspector Richard Queen is frankly baffled, but his son Ellery (an enthusiastic amateur sleuth) is not dismayed by this puzzling case.

As with most of the early Ellery Queens this book contains their famous challenge to the reader - towards the end of the book the reader is informed that he now has possession of all the facts necessary to solve the case for himself, and (as was usual in the Ellery Queen mysteries) the plot is so ingenious that the murderer turns out to be the only person who could possibly have committed the crime.

There’s certainly no disputing the authors’ ability to construct a plot that is like a piece of precision machinery, with each part fitting together so as to produce one and only one solution.

Ellery Queen himself is not the most colourful of fictional detectives but he’s likeable enough. The father-and-son crime-solving team, with the father a professional detective who employs all the conventional methods of a good police officer while the son is a gifted amateur who relies more on pure reasoning, is an effective combination.

The French Powder Mystery is unlikely to disappoint fans of the golden age detective story.