The Devil’s Footsteps

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Footsteps: A Dr. Caspian Novel of Horror by John Burke.

Burke The Devil's Footsteps

When I picked up this mass-market paperback in a used book store, it looked like a cheesy contemporary occult thriller from the 1970s. I was mistaken, and the book amply exceeded my expectations for it. It is in fact a Victorian period piece featuring a stage magician who is a skeptical member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) along with an actually telepathic Welsh photographer. They meet in the rural village of Hexney, where the “Devil’s footprints” of the title are a parapsychological manifestation and there’s something sinister about the local traditions.

Although more contemporary in its pacing and voice, this book has distinct commonalities with Arthur Machen’s better work (e.g. “The Shining Pyramid”) and Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan. A cinematic comparandum might be the original Wicker Man. It most reminded me of the later and longer novel by Ramsey Campbell The Hungry Moon.

The magician Doctor Caspian also turns out to be something of a kabbalist, having had some mystical initiation in Prague, although the emphasis on seven sephiroth was a little peculiar. (The narrator names only five: Kether, Chokmah, Binah, Hod, and Yesod.) A couple of chapters near the middle of the book detail Caspian’s competition with and exposure of some mercenary Spiritualists in London; these events are mostly by way of character development, but they were a high point of the tale for me.

The photographer is a woman who has taken on her father’s intellectual pursuits, and she struck a note similar to that of the young Amelia Peabody in the mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. A significant arc of the book is the development of a romantic interest between the two protagonists. . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Some of the representations of metaphysical evil in this book show influence of yog-sothothery, but none of the telltale names of entities or tomes occur to subordinate it to that “mythos.” All in all, it was a solid little novel of weird horror.