Friday, June 16, 2017

FFB: The Other Side of Green Hills - John Keir Cross

One of the serendipitous rewards of having created this blog is discovering another side to a writer I am already familiar with. Take the case of John Keir Cross, an obscure Scottish writer whose collection of strange and supernatural fiction The Other Passenger I thought was his only noteworthy book. In researching his work as part of my preparation for a foreword to the upcoming reissue of The Other Passenger from Valancourt Books, I learned that the bulk of his work was in children's fiction under his own name as well as his fictional alter ego of "Stephen McFarlane." He wrote a mix of science fiction, detective novels and fantasy for children with much of it published only in the UK. One of the more obscure books published in both the UK and the US is The Owl and the Pussycat (1946) reviewed here under its more familiar US title The Other Side of Green Hills. Also, I thought I would arouse your interest using the US title since the original one is an allusion to the well known nonsense poem by Edward Lear and might cause a bit of confusion as it did me.

Green Hills is the name of a house in the Scottish countryside where several children are spending their Christmas holiday. The "other side" refers to an elaborate alternate dimension on the grounds where the Owl and the Pussycat live. These are not literally two anthropomorphic creatures as in Lear's poem, but an elderly violin playing gentleman and his companion, a little girl about ten years old. The focus of the story is on Geraldine, one of the youngest of the children spending her holiday a Green Hills. It is her uncanny ability to penetrate the Other Side that allows all the children to see and speak with the Owl whose real name we never learn, and the little girl known only as Pussycat.




Sounds a bit too strange already, right? I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles in which another world is accessible through that magical wardrobe located in Professor Kirke's massive home. In The Other Side of Green Hills Geraldine first discovers the alternate universe when she falls into a secret basement after uncovering a trapdoor in a cottage she and her friends are exploring. After being rescued she claims that she was pushed though no one was anywhere near her as she is told by the older children in the group. Later when all the children are visited by the elderly eccentric Owl and the angelic, forever young Pussycat we learn that there are weird creatures known as Moon People who are the enslaved minions of the wicked sorcerer Titus. They are trying to kidnap Geraldine for an unknown purpose. The elderly Owl knows why, but is too terrified to reveal the secret of Titus' motives until it is almost too late.



The Owl talks a lot of paradox which he first introduces to the children in an optical illusion included in the many macabre illustrations done by artist Robin Jacques. He explains this familiar drawing of cubes done in black and white (see illustration at left) as a tool in appreciating how the Other Side exists. "It all depends on how you look at it," he tells the children." Then as he so often does he bursts into song: "Look once, look twice./Look round about --/And in a trice/What's In is Out." Staring at the drawing the children discover that the cubes look as if they are going in or rising out of the paper. And this is also the key to understanding how adults are unable to see into the Other Side or be visited by any of its occupants. Adults, of course, grown too lazy in their thinking and accustomed to their grown up ways tend not to have the ability to see differently as do children the Owl explains.

Though the story begins with a lighthearted fantastical tone as The Owl regales the children with anecdotes of the Other Side and revealing his philosophy of life through a series of songs with seemingly nonsensical lyrics much of the story descends into a dark realm atypical for a children's book of the 1940s. The story will turn into the age old battle between good and evil, innocence and experience, with the children helping rescue Geraldine from the clutches of Titus and the Moon People. Eventually the Owl will divulge the secret motivations of Titus and his search for missing pages in a Book of Secrets the children find. The story is imbued with an increasingly eerie atmosphere, magic rarely is used for good, and the reader cannot help drawing an analogy with the battle that takes place in the climactic pages as a fantastic rendering of post World War 2 England after the Blitz.

Interestingly, these eccentric fantasy characters and incidents echo what is found in Cross' strange adult stories of wanton cruelty, inescapable violence and haunted individuals who populate the pages of The Other Passenger (1944). The theme of an alternate world is explored more metaphorically as characters discover they are trapped within their cursed interior lives. I'll have more about that book in the coming months along with news about its reissue and release date.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

VERDICT OF US ALL: The Shadow of the Wolf - R. Austin Freeman

JJ at "The Invisible Event" has revived the once somewhat regular meme on the vintage mystery blogs in which participants ramble on a particular topic. This month we talk about our favorite book by a writer who we don't care for or have avoided over time because we just don't like his or her style of mystery writing. Took me a while to come up with one for this because most bad mystery writers in my experience don't really have much to recommend in their overall work unless you want to read the books as self-parodies or "Alternative Classics." But that's not the point of this week's topic. So I had to reach back in time to remember one single book by a writer who I just don't read anymore because... well... frankly he bores me to death. And that's R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman as we all know was a pioneer in the scientific detective short story and also the inverted detective story. He also wrote several inverted detective novels but only one of them stands out in my mind as something rather remarkable. The Shadow of the Wolf (1928) is one of his more complex mystery novels loaded with the kind of arcane scientific talk (like a long dissertation on the formation of barnacles on a ship) that aid Dr. John Thorndyke in tracking down his elusive murderous prey. And yet despite what might have been yet another droning, boring book I found it utterly fascinating. There's a paradox worthy of Father Brown. It's one of the few Thorndyke novels that I found truly suspenseful. Another of Freeman's inverted detective novels we therefore know the identity of the murderer in The Shadow of the Wolf from the outset. Thorndyke's methods, however, are so odd and unusual in this novel, a nautical mystery about ships and the sea, that I was transfixed. I tend to write a lot about the "Things I Learned" in books of this type and there is a lot to fill the head of the insatiably curious reader in The Shadow of the Wolf.

I rarely go back to Freeman's books because they belong to an old-fashioned type of detective story that no longer excites me. His obsession with all things related to Egyptology gets tiresome; his characters don't ring true as human beings to me; and his often stodgy prose hasn't aged well. But I will always recommend The Shadow of the Wolf for its faster than normal pace (for Freeman, that is), its unusual subject matter, and a story that unravels with true suspense and a couple of thrilling surprises.

Friday, June 9, 2017

FFB: The Thing in the Brook - Peter Storme

THE STORY: Biologist James Whitby's scientific studies are interrupted when he inadvertently becomes one of two men who discover the grisly body hanging from a tree above the brook in the rural village of Brookdale. The victim, a much loathed local, was strangled, bludgeoned and then hanged. Someone definitely wanted him dead. Could this be another victim of the legendary thing that is said to haunt the waters of the brook? What happened to that young woman so many years ago? Her clothes were found in a neat pile by the bank but not a trace of her body ever turned up.

THE CHARACTERS: Whitby narrates the story, but he's not at all interested in solving the baffling thrice murdered victim. He'd rather attend to his involved study of the local Myxomycetes. That's slime mold to all us non-scientific schmoes. Slime molds! You'd think that this was a parody of detective novels the way the opening chapters play out. What with Whitby's reluctance to cooperate with the state troopers, the motorcycle cop who keeps showing up to interrogate the villagers, and Whitby's overeager house guest Henry Hale (a murder mystery addict and budding amateur criminologist) sticking his nose into the investigation like some junior Philo Vance. There is a wry humor that pervades the story, but the plot turns very grim and serious by the midpoint.

So is it a parody? Not really. A homage to the intuititionist school seems more likely. Despite frequent deprecating allusions to fictional detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey and Vance, Whitby fails to deter Henry from his goal of uncovering the identity of Howard Stanton's killer. Two more deaths will occur before the surprising finale.

Hale is sort of a run-of-the-mill amateur sleuth that you find in numerous American mystery novels of the mid-1930s. I was reminded of the Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge novels because the of the bizarre nature of the murders, the creepy atmosphere, the legend of the "thing" of the title, and a slightly macabre obsession with murder and occult phenomena.

Leading me to the most interesting character of the book -- Mr. Marigold, an overweight, florid man of middle age who lives alone with his cat Herman. Marigold regales Hale with a litany of grotesque murders from the annals of crime reveling in the lurid details of violence and unusual weapons employed from medieval times to the post-WW1 years. Later, Marigold discusses his interest in psychic research with Whitby.

INNOVATIONS: There is a strong hint that something paranormal is going on in Brookdale, but sadly this never really pans out. Still, the story has a neat resolution that may raise a few eyebrows and frustrate traditionalists in its iconoclastic disregard for the finer rules of detective novel writing.

Storme clearly seems to be inspired by Van Dine and Quentin in his plotting and detective novel structuring. Hale calls himself an intuitive sleuth and not a true detective. He spends much of his time looking for the "psychological pattern" of the crimes foreshadowing the kind of criminal profiling techniques that become very popular in late 20th century crime novels. Hale relies perhaps too much on inference and intuition and does not impress the police even in his long lecture in the final chapter (teasingly titled "Parlor Tricks") when he reveals the truth. Captain Macready reminds us all that guesswork has no place in real police work when he warns Hale, "You'll need better evidence than that." And yet all along Storme has done an admirable job of supplying the reader with subtle clues -- mostly presented in character sketches and dialogue -- so that he too can come to the same conclusion as Henry Hale. The revelation of the motive and methods of the murders may break a couple of rules for traditional detective novels, but I'll give Storme bonus points for subverting the genre just when it needed shaking up.

Philip Van Doren Stern, circa 1940s
THE AUTHOR: "Peter Storme" wrote only one detective novel. His real name was Philip Van Doren Stern, an American historian and short story anthologist who wrote several non-fiction volumes on the Civil War as well as editing a collection of Poe's writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and a noteworthy ghost story anthology. In addition to his writing Stern made a living in the publishing industry working as an editor for Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books and Knopf at various times throughout his lifetime.  Stern's claim to fame, however, will always be his short story "The Greatest Gift" which has been immortalized on film as the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.

EASY TO FIND? At one time it was fairly easy to find either of the two US paperback editions of The Thing in the Brook (1937). But as with the majority of books I enjoy and like to write about this title is becoming increasingly scarce in all its editions. As far as I know there is no UK edition of this book. The original US first edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937) is practically a rare book these days as I found only two copies for sale online. If you do go looking, you will increase your chances of finding a copy knowing that the digest paperback edition was retitled The Case of the Thing in the Brook which was reprinted in 1941.

Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.


THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.