Tuesday, June 29, 2021
Seabury Quinn’s The Dark Angel
Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) was an American pulp writer who enjoyed considerable success. In fact in the 1920s and 30s he was the most popular of all the Weird Tales writers. His reputation did not last. While his fellow Weird Tales writers like H.P. Lovecraft Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have gained at least a limited degree of literary respectability Quinn is still (for the most part) reviled as one of the kinds of hack writer who gave the pulps a bad name.
That’s a bit unfair. Quinn had no literary pretensions whatsoever. He wrote to earn money. To achieve the success that he did achieve he needed to have a very sound instinct for what would work in commercial terms and he most certainly did have that instinct. He wrote commercially oriented pulp fiction and he wrote it very well.
His tales of occult detective Jules de Grandin (with an American doctor named Trowbridge acting as his Watson) are immense fun but they’re also very clever.
Jules de Grandin is a bit like Hercule Poirot if you can imagine Poirot on crystal meth. He’s a wildly over-the-top character, insanely self-confident and utterly unstoppable and remorseless in his pursuit of those who use occult powers for evil.
The Lost Lady is a tale of the East. More specifically it has its origins in French Indo-China. It involves a woman from the East, but not of the East. In involves evil and it involves power but it is the belief in evil and in power that matters. Actually it involves several women, one of whom is (or was) a Khmer temple-slave but she is European, not Khmer.
White slavery was an immensely popular subject at the time (with plenty of salacious potential) but this is not an ordinary story of white slavery. It does however have lots of salacious content.
The Ghost Helper is obviously a ghost story and it’s quite a good one. We start with a married couple and there is obviously some tension between them. Jules de Grandin and his friend Dr Trowbridge are then called in to treat the wife who seems to have been terrified by something. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to reveal that there really is a ghost but it’s the motives of the ghost that are important. A good story.
In Satan’s Stepson an old foe of de Grandin’s returns and he faces a new and even more terrifying foe. It is a tale of a man and a woman who both cheat death, but in very different ways. And it is a tale of a monster, partly human and partly diabolical, not a vampire but just as monstrous. It is a tale of an evil that can only be destroyed in a very specific way. And it is a tale of espionage as well. This is Quinn at his best, superbly inventive and energetic. A very good story.
The Dark Angel involves a series of murders, apparently carried out by an angel of Satan. Jules de Grandin finds that are all kinds of evil in the world and evil is not always where you expect it to be. This one is a bit too obvious but it’s OK.
There’s murder at the ballet in The Heart of Siva. Someone is trying to prevent the Issatakko Ballet Russe from presenting their latest somewhat outrageous production and the motivations could be religious. There’s some decent suspense in this one, some gruesomeness and some sleaze and of course hints of sinister eastern conspiracies and secret societies. And some real creepiness. These are the kinds of things Quinn did well and it’s a very good story.
In The Bleeding Mummy de Grandin and Trowbridge are called to the home of archaeologist Professor Larson, to find that Larson has suffered a grisly and terrifying death. He had been in the process of unwrapping a mummy he had brought back from Egypt. His is just the latest in a series of deaths associated wth his most recent expedition. The first mystery that Jules de Grandin must solve is the manner of the professor’s death but there is another much more ancient mystery to be solved as well. This is a rather scary story and a clever one as well.
The Door to Yesterday deals with a series of mysterious deaths, horrors from the past, a giant snake, voodoo and an interesting take on haunted houses. You can’t go wrong with those ingredients and I’m especially find of voodoo tales so for me this story was definitely a winner.
A Gamble in Souls is one of the cleverer stories in the collection. For some reason de Grandin and Trowbridge pay a visit to the penitentiary, or more specifically to Death Row, and witness a heart-breaking scene. A woman named Beth is saying farewell to the man she loves, a man named Lonny who is to be executed next day. A few hours later de Grandin and Trowbridge encounter the woman again. She is about to commit suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. While they try to dissuade her from suicide she pours out her tragic story. Lonny is innocent. The murder of which he was convicted was carried out by his brother Larry. But Beth is married to Larry and cannot testify against him, and therefore there is no way to save Lonny from the executioner.
The case is so hopeless that even Jules de Grandin is powerless - unless perhaps his old friend Hussein Obeyid can do something to save Lonny. De Grandin has seen Obeyid do many seemingly impossible things. Obeyid thinks that he may be able to help although he can make no guarantees that such a fantastic scheme will work. And it is a fantastic scheme. A very good story.
In The Thing in the Fog two young men are attacked in the city by a huge dog. One is killed, the other seriously hurt and would have been slain had Jules de Grandin not happened to be on the scene. The attack happened at night, in thick fog. The injured young man’s fiancée Sallie is of course dreadfully upset and tells de Grandin a strange story that confirms the Frenchman’s suspicion that they are not dealing with a dog but a werewolf. And this young lady may well be tainted by lycanthropy as well.
Quinn gives his own rather interesting spins to werewolf lore - you don’t need silver bullets to kill a werewolf and the curse of lycanthropy can be transmitted in many ways. These variations on standard werewolf lore are the highlight of the story.
De Grandin has an added incentive in this adventure - Sallie and her young man wish to worry and being a Frenchman de Grandin is determined to see young love triumph. But can the taint of lycanthropy be removed from Sallie? This is a fairly entertaining werewolf tale.
The Hand of Glory is the final story in the collection. The hand of glory itself (the hand of a condemned murderer which was supposed to have magical powers) plays only a minor part in the story. It’s a tale of the old gods (or in this case the old goddesses) exercising their evil powers. Not a bad story but nothing special.
This collection also includes the short novel The Devil’s Bride which I’d already read and which I reviewed here a few years back.
There’s no sense in trying to claim that Seabury Quinn was the equal of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith or Robert E. Howard. He clearly wasn’t. But he knew how to assemble the right ingredients for a pulp story and he knew how to cook up those ingredients into a good entertaining tale. This collection is on the whole pretty enjoyable. Recommended.