pulp novels, trash fiction, detective stories, adventure tales, spy fiction, etc from the 19th century up to the 1970s
Sunday, October 27, 2013
The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One
It’s a basically sound idea and it works quite well in practice. The stories include a couple of the usual suspects that you’d expect to find in such an anthology (such as Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man) but generally speaking Peyton has done a fine job of ignoring the obvious and seeking out lesser known or even quite obscure tales. As in any anthology there’s a variation in quality but on the whole this is a collection of very high quality and considerable interest.
All of the fictional pieces have at least some connection with railways and Peyton has wisely steered clear of stories with only a tenuous link to his chosen subject matter. Unfortunately no dates are given for most of the stories but Peyton has shown a very astute preference for earlier stories. We are mercifully spared the misery of slogging through a large number of tedious and pretentious modern stories.
There are of course a few complete misses - the less said about Richard Hughes’ totally pointless Locomotive and John Newton Chance’s dismal The Mourning Train the better.
These occasional lapses are more than compensated for by some real treasures by almost forgotten authors. Sir Andrew Caldicott’s Branch Line to Benceston is a clever blending of science fiction and horror. Its connection with railways is perhaps not as strong as is the case with most of the other stories but it’s an intriguing tale nonetheless.
Arnold Ridley is remembered with fondness for his portrayal of Private Godfrey in the long-running Dad’s Army TV series. Ridley was a successful writer as well as an actor and his Journey Into Fear is a conventional but wonderfully atmospheric tale. Robert Aickman had a reputation for being one of the most subtle of all horror writers. In my view his only weakness is that on occasion his stories are too subtle and fail to provide a satisfying payoff but that is an accusation that certainly cannot be leveled at his superb The Waiting Room.
Peter Fleming was the brother of Ian Fleming. His story The Kill is more of a full-blooded horror story than a ghost story and it has little to do with railways. It’s not particularly subtle but fans of werewolf stories will enjoy it.
John Wyndham was one of the finest British science fiction writers of the 20th century. His Confidence Trick is an unconventional exercise in what might be called existentialist black comedy. This is a literal journey to Hell, and Hell will never be the same again after the arrival of this particular trainload of new arrivals.
L .T. C. Rolt’s The Garside Fell Disaster is a very traditional railway ghost story that works well enough.
August Derleth was renowned as an editor as well as a horror writer and he also had a passion for regional tales based on local folklore. He provides two stories, one written under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon. The Night Train to Lost Valley is nicely atmospheric if a trifle obvious. Pacific 421, published under his real name, is one of the highlights of this anthology. A truly great ghost story should take the traditional ingredients of the ghost story and do something unexpected with them, and I think it’s fair to say that this one qualifies as a great ghost story. It has a very nasty little ironic sting in the tail.
Ray Bradbury needs no introduction to horror fans and The Town Where No One Got Off is typical of Bradbury at his best, and avoids the pitfalls of Bradbury at his worst.
This anthology includes several tales about railway lines that do not go where they should and stations that do not exist. The best of them is A. M. Burrage’s The Wrong Station, a lovely tale of melancholic horror. Burrage’s reputation has grown steadily over the years but unfortunately his work is exceptionally difficult to get hold of so the inclusion of this story is very welcome indeed.
J. D. Beresford’s Lost in the Fog is, alas, a rather complete failure, clumsy and obvious.
Algernon Blackwood was a master of the ghost story. Miss Slumbubble - and Claustrophobia manages to build terror, and do so very successfully, out of nothing at all.
The last thing you’d expect to come across is a ghost story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Short Trip Home is however most definitely a ghost story, and a very good one. It’s a Jazz Age ghost story and it’s both subtle and chilling.
William F. Nolan’s Lonely Train A' Comin' is the final story in the book and Peyton gives it an enthusiastic build-up. It’s by far the most modern-feeling of the stories featured here an unfortunately it’s close to being the worst. It’s the only story that relies on gore and it’s a remarkably clumsy effort. In content it has something in common with the Fitzgerald story that precedes it but Nolan’s clumsy bludgeoning effort makes a sad contrast with Fitzgerald’s subtle chills.
The “real-life” ghostly railway tales with stretch the reader’s credibility more than the fictional contributions but they do certainly add some additional flavour and they demonstrate that people who love trains seem to have a very notable interest in the supernatural.
Overall this is really a very strong anthology, with far more hits than misses and the stories that hit the target frequently do so with remarkable efffect. If you are a fan of ghost stories then it’s a very worthwhile purchase. If you love trains as well then it becomes pretty much a must-buy volume. It’s out of print but used copies are plentiful and cheap. Definitely recommended.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
H. C. Bailey's Mr Fortune, Please
Reggie Fortune appeared in several novels but most fans seem to regard the many short stories in which he featured as being the best of the Mr Fortune tales (although he is a qualified medical practitioner he is invariably referred to as Mr Fortune).
Mr Fortune, Please was published in 1927 and contain six Reggie Fortune stories. By this time it was fairly well established that the only crime worth engaging the attention of a great fictional sleuth was murder but Mr Fortune investigates a variety of crimes. Some seem trivial at first but turn out to be not merely serious but quite horrifying (as in the Little House which is a very dark story story indeed).
The Cat Burglar deals, as the title suggests, with a series of cat burglaries that are not quite what they seem. The Lion Party is a classic jewel robbery story. The Quiet Lady has the kind of ingenious plot that fans of golden age detective fiction enjoy so much although it could be seen to be bending one of the rules of the fair-play detective story.
The settings are quite varied as well, with Mr Fortune finding himself in the depths of the countryside in The Violet Farm while other stories take place in London. The Violet Farm is one of my favourites, involving a crime whose roots go back to the seventeenth century.
Reggie Fortune is one of those fictional detectives you’re either going to love or loathe. He’s somewhat in the Lord Peter Wimsey style - languid, upper-class, rather affected and lightly eccentric.
Mr Fortune is the sort of amateur detective who is happy to cooperate with the official police although he is at times rather exasperated by their inability to see connexions between clues that seem blindingly obvious to him.
I personally like Mr Fortune a great deal although it’s probably not a good idea to read too many of the stories back-to-back. Mr Fortune, Please being short collection of only six tales provides an ideal introduction to one of the golden age’s most entertaining detectives. Highly recommended.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
The Devil’s Mistress by J. W. Brodie-Innes
The author claims to have based his story on actual events and actual persons, a claim also backed up be Dennis Wheatley in his introduction to the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult edition. There’s certainly no doubt that Sir Robert Gordon, the Wizard Laird, was an actual historical personage and that he really was at the very least a dabbler in occult practices.
The story centres on Isabel Goudie, a young woman raised as a Catholic but forced to accept the Protestant faith and forced (or at least pressured) also into marriage with a man below her station, a dour and rather uncouth farmer named John Gilbert. Her boredom and her resentment, and her desire for romance and adventure, will lead her to become involved in some very strange events.
The Reformed Kirk appears to be in very firm control but there are still numerous Catholics in the district, practising their religion in secret. Father Blackhall ministers to the spiritual needs of the oppressed Catholics, adopting a series of ingenious disguises to avoid detection.
Witchcraft is also a strong presence in this district. Sir Robert Gordon preserves the outward appearances of conformity with the Reformed Kirk but he is in fact in sympathy with the Catholics, while at the same time pursuing his passion for alchemy and his insatiable thirst for occult knowledge. Sir Robert’s knowledge of these subjects is extensive, as a result of a pact he made with Satan years earlier. Sir Robert is aware of the dangers inherent in such a pact but he has go the better of the Devil in the past and believes he can do so again.
Isabel becomes involve with Satan as well. She knows him as the Dark Master and she becomes his lover, hunting with his coven on a regular basis. The coven hunts the most challenging game of all, man. Their victims are many and Isabel herself has been responsible for the deaths of many of their victims. Despite this Isabel is in an equivocal position. She has renounced her baptism into the Reformed Kirk but even Satan does not have the power to allow her to renounce her Catholic baptism.
Isabel’s story is one of romance, excitement and violence. Isabel is not however purely evil. Paradoxically she often uses the powers given to her by Satan to do good, and in particular to help her friend Jean Gordon. Jean is in love with the handsome Cosmo Hamilton, a scion of one of the great old families of the region and a bitter enemy of both the Reformed Kirk and of Cromwell’s government.
Isabel also venture into the fairy kingdom, the realm of Middle Earth. The fairies are by no means in league with Satan but they have a kind of agreement with him, whilst obeying their own laws.
You expect an occult thriller to be a straightforward conflict between the powers of good and the powers of evil but this story is much more complex. There are many powers, some good, some evil, some neither good nor evil. Satan is the master of the material world but his powers do not extend into the various other spiritual and otherwise non-material worlds. This is a story of the conflict between the powers of Satan and the powers of God, but it is also a struggle between the Reformed Kirk and the old Catholic faith. Neither Father Blackhall nor Sir Robert Gordon are of Satan’s party but that does not inhibit them from mixing with him on a social basis. The Devil is a gentleman and he is an entertaining and charming social companion. Father Blackhall is on friendly terms with him because he knows that Satan has no power over him, and socialising with your enemy is a good way of learning more abut him.
Isabel’s desire to help Jean and Cosmo, and later to help Sir Robert in his attempt to evade paying his debt to Satan, will drive a wedge between her and her and the Dark Master.
Both isabel and Sir Robert are gamblers and they are playing for the highest stakes of all. The Devil is a formidable opponent but he is a gentleman and he does play by the rules.
This is a novel teeming with ambiguity. Apart from the Dark Master the human characters are neither purely good nor purely evil. Both Isabel and Sir Robert have imperilled their souls but they are by no means irredeemably lost. Isabel in particular has sinned grievously but she has also committed acts of charity and even piety.
The author’s sympathies clearly do not lie with the Reformed Kirk but his attitudes towards the Devil are ambiguous. The Devil is certainly a terrifying threat to a person’s immortal soul but he is, by his own lights, an honest adversary and free from hypocrisy. People who make pacts with Satan should be aware of the dangers. In general the author’s sympathies, despite his involvement with ritual magick and the occult, seem to lie mostly with the Catholic faith. Or perhaps he merely recognises that the Catholic Church’s claims to spiritual power and its ability to offer redemption are real, in contrast with the claims of the Protestant faiths. If you are in need of salvation then the Catholic Church really can deliver the goods.
Whilst dealing with fascinating questions of faith, salvation, nature of evil and the clash between the spiritual and material spheres this is also a very exciting tale of adventure. The epic pursuit of Sir Robert by the Dark Master, each mounted on supernatural steeds, is a thrilling adventure tour-de-force. The storm conjured up by Isabel to cause the shipwreck of the brigantine carrying the captured Cosmo Hamilton to slavery is another exciting high point.
More interest is added by the story’s claims to being based on actual events, although of course the historical records furnish only a bare outline which Brodie-Innes has fleshed out with considerable skill. Even more interest is added by the hints the author drops that at least some of the events described may be dreams, although these dreams may perhaps at times have more reality than what we normally think of as the real world.
The Devil’s Mistress is a fascinating and complex and highly entertaining, as well as very unusual, occult thriller. It’s easy to understand why Dennis Wheatley was so enthusiastic about this book. Brodie-Innes is a sadly neglected writer and fans of the horror, gothic and occult thriller genres will find much here to enjoy as well as considerable food for thought. Very highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table
To add some spice the four murderers are all killers who have performed the impressive feat of getting away with murder, literally. Their crimes have never come to the attention of the police but they have come to the attention of Mr Shaitana.
The four sleuths comprise a mix of the professional and the amateur. Among them is a certain Belgian gentleman by the name of M. Hercule Poirot.
We know pretty much from the beginning which of the guests are murderers and which are detectives. A minor complication is that although Mr Shaitana is certain in his own mind that he is correct about the four murderers there is in fact a slight element of doubt. Poirot is not entirely convinced that all four have actually committed murder, but he concedes that Shaitana is undoubtedly correct about at least three of them.
Mr Shaitana is a gentleman of uncertain origin and it has to be said that he is not an especially pleasant person. Poirot for one finds the whole idea of this little gathering to be rather distasteful. Poirot does not consider murder a suitable subject for such entertainments.
After dinner the guests settle down to bridge. It goes without saying that the evening’s festivities culminate in murder. Christie here adds a nice twist - the slayer could only be one of four people in a particular room of the house at a particular stage of the evening, and those four people happen to be Mr Shaitana’s four murderers.
Physical clues play a fairly unimportant role in the subsequent investigations. This murder can only be solved by a careful study of the psychology of the four suspects. Poirot’s method is ingenious. He studies the psychologies of the suspects by means of analysis of their card playing. His firm belief is that the murderer planned and carried out the murder in exactly the way he or she played bridge.
Christie was not always entirely scrupulous in adhering to the accepted rules of the golden age detective story of the 1920s and 1930s. The idea of rules that a writer should follow is one of the conventions of the golden age that would attract considerable derision from later generations of crime writers. In fact following such rules was an entirely sound approach. It forced writers to impose a very healthy discipline upon themselves and it forced them to treat the reader with respect. As these rules gradually fell out of fashion crime fiction became less entertaining, with the reader being more and more likely to feel that the writer had wasted his or her time.
Later crime writers would invariably claim that the increased psychological complexity and realism of their books provided more than sufficient compensation. This claim is, sadly, more or less complete nonsense. The crime writers of the golden age were perfectly capable of psychological complexity when it was required and Cards on the Table is a splendid example.
What is perhaps most surprising about Christie’s stories is that she was able to bend or even break the rules without entirely ruining the reader’s enjoyment. In this case she takes this habit perhaps a little too far. By doing so she provides herself with some additional plot twists but I’m personally not quite convinced it was a worthwhile tradeoff.
In spite of this minor reservation this book is a sparkling display of Christie’s powers. Poirot is as amusing as ever. Few crime writers have blended gentle humour with crime-solving quite so skillfully as Christie.
This book was, alas, brutally butchered when it was adapted as an episode of the increasingly irritating and loathsome Poirot TV series. Never has a TV crime series started so promisingly as this one only to descend to the very lowest depths of heavy-handed agenda-driven bad television. Luckily we still have the book, and it can be thoroughly recommended.
Friday, October 11, 2013
The Complete Cabalistic Cases of Semi Dual
The narrator is newspaper reporter Gordon Glace. Glace is a typical newspaperman in his zeal for scoops but while he’d do just about anything to get a story in other respects he’s honest and he’s a kind of frustrated romantic. In the first story, The Occult Detector, he is assigned to interview a mysterious man known only by the rather unlikely moniker of Semi Dual. Semi Dual turns out to be half-Persian, providing him with an exotic touch that pulp readers would be sure to appreciate. He lives on the roof of the city’s highest office building, in a kind of luxurious penthouse surrounded by a roof garden.
Glace never does get the interview but he gets something much more valuable. He becomes Semi Dual’s Dr Watson. Their first case together is a murder, a crime that is in fact the result of several other crimes including fraud and blackmail. Glace gets his first inkling of Semi Dual’s methods. Semi Dual appears to be a kind of mystic or psychic although he claims that what appear to the uninitiated to be mysterious occult powers are simply the application of scientific laws, albeit scientific laws that are unknown to modern science. His techniques include the use of astrology but also the analysis of handwriting, neatly combining the scientific and the pseudo-scientific in classic pulp style.
The Significance of the High “D” is the second story and it puts the emphasis on handwriting, but Semi Dual can learn far more from handwriting than the average expert in this field. For Semi Dual it is a window into the soul. It may offer the only hope of saving a young bank teller accused of fraud. In the course of the investigation Gordon Glace makes the acquaintance of the colourful Colonel MacDonohue Sheldon, a bizarre figure straight out of the Wild West whose speculations on the stock market are adventurous if perhaps dubiously legal. Colonel Sheldon is unquestionably a rogue but he is a rogue with an unexpected heart of gold, a man whose virtues are on the same epic scale as his vices. Colonel Sheldon and his family will figure in further adventures.
The third story, The Wistaria Scarf, is much more ambitious. The kidnapping of Colonel Sheldon’s daughter will precipitate a chase that will take Glace and Semi Dual to Paris, thence to Moscow and finally to a mountain in Persia. A mere kidnapping would not be a sufficient basis for such a full-blown pulp adventure so the authors throw in white slavery for good measure (a subject sure to appeal to readers of the pulps).
John Ulrich Giesy (1877-1947) and Junius B. Smith (1883-1945) would go on to produce dozens of Semi Dual stories between 1912 and 1934, stories that would appear in a variety of pulp magazines. Despite the character’s undoubted popularity none of the stories were published in book form until Altus Press brought out the volume reviewed here in 2013.
Occult detectives were enjoying a considerable vogue at the time. An unusual characteristic of the Semi Dual tales is that each case usually has to be solved twice. Semi Dual uses his occult (or paranormal if you prefer a more modern term) powers to uncover the identity of the criminal and to elucidate the main features of the crime. Gordon Glace then employs more conventional methods to gather the hard evidence that a court of law demands. Apart from its inherent interest this technique has the advantage that it makes Glace slightly more than just the usual Dr Watson-like sidekick; this really is a partnership to which both partners contribute.
Semi Dual is the kind of larger-than-life, slightly exotic, definitely eccentric and somewhat mysterious figure that any good fictional occult detective should be. He is clearly a gentleman (his father was a Persian nobleman), he is chivalrous and he is devoted to the pursuit of justice. For Semi Dual crime is an offence to the natural laws of the universe and is thus doubly heinous. Semi Dual is a man of great charm and despite his rather aloof manner of life he is possessed of considerable warmth and kindliness. He has just enough of a quixotic streak to make him more than just a crime-solving machine.
Of course Semi Dual comes across as arrogant, as do so many of the great fictional detectives of both the occult and non-occult sub-species. Readers of the pulps would be unlikely to be greatly bothered by this and he is at least arrogant without being petty.
The publication of this volume is cause for celebration for aficionados of occult detective stories. The three tales included herein are thoroughly enjoyable and the superiority and greater ambition of the third story suggests that a future volume containing more of these stories might well be even more entertaining. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
J. J. Connington’s The Castleford Conundrum
Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished British chemist who wrote an important although now somewhat neglected science fiction novel as well as seventeen detective novels under the name J. J. Connington.
The Castleford Conundrum belongs to the then very popular sub-genre of the country house murder tale.
Winifred Castleford is a particularly disagreeable woman. She is vain, stupid, vicious, manipulative and domineering to the highest degree. Her husband Philip belongs to that very unfortunate class of men, those who have married for money. Like most such men Philip has discovered that there is a very high price to be paid for such a decision. Philip has paid the price in shame and humiliation and his misery is about to be compounded. Winifred has decided to write him out of her will.
In Philip’s defence it can be said that he married Winifred largely because it seemed to be the only way to provide for his daughter by his first marriage, Hilary Castleford.
Winifred had been married before, to a wealthy war profiteer named Ronald Glencaple, now deceased. Glencaple’s two brothers, Laurence and Kenneth, have little money but they hold the firm conviction that they are entitled to the wealth of their late brother. Winifred’s half-sister Constance Lindfield also feels she is entitled to this money. In fact no-one likes Winifred but everyone seems to be interested in her money. All in all it’s an exceedingly unpleasant family. Equally unpleasant is a young man named Stevenage who has at various times been pursuing Mrs Castleford, Miss Lindfield and Hilary Castleford.
When Winifred is found dead there’s not the slightest doubt that her passing is regretted by nobody. The possible motive for the murder hinges on the very complicated situation surrounding Mrs Castleford’s will, or rather wills. There are two wills but there is a possibility that neither may be valid. The disposition of Winifred Castleford’s substantial wealth will be very different depending on which will, if any, proves to be valid. To add a further complication the various suspects all had different beliefs as to the exact state in which Winifred’s testamentary affairs stood at the time of her death.
And all of the suspects had plausible motives other than money for wishing to see Winifred Castleford depart this vale of tears.
Inspector Westerham is an able man and his investigations have been thorough and methodical but the murder is still far from solved when the Chief Constable, Sir Clinton Driffield, finds himself drawn into the case. Driffield’s friend, the Squire Wendover (who appears in many of the Clinton Driffield mysteries) is the agency by which Driffield becomes involved.
Driffield is not one of the more amiable of fictional detectives but although his methods sometimes appear to be a little insensitive there’s no question that he is a man who gets results, and in his own way he’s an intriguing character.
Connington is now largely forgotten outside the small circle of hardcore aficionados of the detective fiction of the golden age but this neglect is very unjust. Connington’s plotting is as skillful and as intricate as any devotee of crime fiction could wish for. And while he was one of the group of English writers dismissed by critic Julian Symons as constituting the “humdrum school” of detective fiction he was in actuality a fine writer who knew his craft.
Connington’s science fiction novel Nordenholt’s Million demonstrates his interest in difficult moral dilemmas and in the psychology of men who are natural leaders and who must face the terrible choices that leadership entails. Sir Clinton Driffield is a man of that type as well, the sort of man who may appear arrogant and insensitive but who in fact simply have a keen sense of reality. Reality can be very unpleasant but refusing to face reality can be more unpleasant still. Sir Clinton Driffield will never be tempted into a willful refusal to face reality.
Connington also had the ability to create unlovable but fascinating minor characters. Not one of the characters in this novel could be described as being the type of person one would like to be intimately involved with but not one of them fails to engage our interest.
The Castleford Conundrum is a worthy representative of the detective fiction of the interwar period at its best. Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
The Land of Ophir
Charles Beadle was born an Englishman in 1881, although he was actually born at sea. As a young man he travelled extensively in Africa and served in the Boer War. He contributed extensively to American pulp magazines. His date of death is unknown.
The Land of Ophir is a lost world tale, a type of story to which I am extremely partial. Philip Tromp (a descendant of the Dutch admiral who famously tied a broom to his masthead to signify his intention to sweep the English out of the English Channel and then proceeded to do just that) is an adventurer at a loose end. He meets an old school friend named Thorpe in a bar in Africa.
A couple of years earlier Tromp had saved an African girl from a beating at the hands of a man of indeterminate race named Gandy. That encounter will later have fateful consequences.
Some time later Tromp comes across a journal written by Thorpe, who has now disappeared. The journal recounts the story of Thorpe’s final expedition.
Thorpe had discovered a lost civilisation, but he had also discovered something of even more interest to an adventurer. This lost civilisation has gold. Lots and lots of gold. More gold than any man could imagine.
A penniless Irish viscount named Fieldmorre is putting together an expedition to find Thorpe’s lost civilisation. His partner is an American, Billy Langster, another old Africa hand. It doesn’t take much to convince Tromp to join them. Also taking part are a Frenchman of questionable motives named Vèron and a Syrian known as Sabah.
The expedition is a big one, including a couple of hundred Hausa tribesmen whose loyalty is unquestioned (at least at the start of the journey). The expedition soon runs into trouble, and the troubles continue to mount. Both camels and men are poisoned. They are almost wiped out by a huge band of Tuaregs. They are plagued by sickness. To cap it all off they start losing more men, killed by darts. The darts are of a type seen only in Borneo, adding mystery to their already full load of misery. And then their Hausa warriors start to desert.
Despite all these setbacks they do of course find the lost civilisation and the lost city. But what kind of civilisation is it, and how could could such a city be found so far south in Africa? And what is the full significance of the worship of the snakes?
This is a very short novel at just 58,000 words but it packs a great deal of plot into its short length. There is as much action as anyone could reasonably ask for, including at least one full-scale battle. There is treachery, and there is revenge. There are links to biblical history, and to pre-biblical history.
Beadle was able to draw on his experiences in Africa for the background to this story giving it a fairly authentic feel. His style is extremely pulpy, which is no bad thing in this type of story, and more importantly the writing has energy and a certain flair to it. Beadle creates some colourful characters and his plotting is sound. This is a story that moves along at a very healthy pace.
If you enjoy lost world stories and two-fisted action adventure tales then you should find that The Land of Ophir ticks all the requisite boxes. Highly recommended.
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