Tag Archives: Horror Literature & Fiction

The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, see also The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.

Quinn The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin

This 1976 mass market paperback collects a half dozen of the ninety-three tales about occult detective Jules de Grandin. This set were all written for publication in Weird Tales from 1926 to 1933. Although all of these books by Seabury Quinn under the Popular Library imprint boast “SCIENCE FICTION” on the cover, they don’t conform to the genre as it is currently understood. They are pulp-era action stories in mundane settings. The “Hellfire” title here is reasonably apposite, since each story has something to do with diabolism or a nefarious cult.

One yarn is called “The Great God Pan,” and although it compares unfavorably to identically-titled stories by Arthur Machen (1894) and M. John Harrison (1988), it is still a palatable romp regarding a neo-pagan cult in the wilds of New Jersey. This one is actually the earliest included here, although it appears second.

Quinn, in the voice of de Grandin, supplies a little occult theorizing around the notion of “psychoplasm.” (A likely proximate source for the term and concept was the 1920 Adventures of a Modern Occultist by Oliver Bland.) The supernatural element in the stories is highly variable, and the final pair of tales furnishes an admirable contrast between “The Hand of Glory” where exorcism is the effective solution to thwart genuine demonic influence and “Mephistopheles and Company Ltd.” where sleuthing and physical combat overcome a criminal gang who use superstition and trickery to terrify their victims. Both stories, like nearly all of these, derive motivation from a young woman in peril. Quinn seems to have preferred such ladies to be tall, slender, and pale.

The selections here include both a vampire story and a werewolf story. The latter, “The Wolf of Saint Bonnot” was the basis for the Hugh Rankin cover art of its December 1930 issue of Weird Tales (scene on pages 125-6 of this book). “The Hand of Glory” inspired the July 1933 cover by Margaret Brundage (pages 174-5). Both covers were racy illustrations typical of their genre and era, and pretty accurate to Quinn’s text.

The book includes an appendix by editor Robert Weinberg that furnishes full biographical sketches of de Grandin and his amanuensis Dr. Trowbridge, as abstracted from Quinn’s stories. For readers new to the de Grandin material, it might be helpful to read this end matter before the stories. Steve Fabian’s map of Quinn’s fictional Harrisonville, New Jersey appears at the start of the book, but the printing is a little muddy and hard to read in my copy.

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)

Quinn Carter The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.

The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).

The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”

In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.

These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.

The Innsmouth Cycle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Innsmouth Cycle: The Taint of the Deep Ones in 13 Tales [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] selected and introduced by Robert M Price, part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.

Price The Innsmouth Cycle

The Chaosium-published “Cycle” books, as edited by Robert M. Price, generally take a Cthulhu Mythos “entity” and supply a full range of literature for it: the key Lovecraft stories, likely prior influences, and later derivations. In this case, center stage is given to the Deep Ones of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I almost skipped re-reading the Lovecraft story itself, since it is the longest in the book, and I always have other things to read. But I’m glad I didn’t: it’s one of my favorites, and it really held up to the repeat reading, which was further enhanced by some of Price’s remarks in the general introduction, where he discusses the initiatory dimension of the tale. Given the fondness that I have for “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” I thought the other stories might have a hard time measuring up. But I found this collection very strong on the whole. 

With the exception of the three poems placed at the end, the contents are arranged roughly chronologically by date of first publication. Price has identified three predecessor stories. The first and least relevant is the brief Dunsany Pegana piece “Of Yoharneth Lahai.” It may be the source of the name Y’ha-nthlei as Price contends, but it contributed no substance to Lovecraft’s Atlantic citadel of the Deep Ones. “The Harbor-Master” was the first Robert W. Chambers story I had read that wasn’t in The King in Yellow, and it was quite good; in fact it may goad me to read the remainder of In Search of the Unknown, the site of its original publication. “Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb is an effective little tale also. But in both the Chambers and Cobb stories, the ichthyoid men are isolated freaks of nature, whereas the terribleness of the Lovecraftian Deep Ones has a great deal to do with the extent of their society, or even conspiracy.

That element is played up well in a number of the latter-day tales, most especially “Innsmouth Gold” (Vester), “Custos Sanctorum” (Johnson), “Rapture in Black” (Rainey), “Live Bait” (Sargent), and “Devil Reef” (Glasby). I preferred these 1980s and 90s pieces to the 1960s and 70s work of James Wade and Franklyn Searight, although the Wade stories in particular can be seen as predecessor tales themselves to Alan Moore’s splendid Neonomicon. The majority of the newer stories have very explicit links to the original Lovecraft story, usually mentioning Innsmouth by name and often setting their principal events in the same mythical New England town. Geographic outliers include Big Sur (“The Deep Ones”), Chicago (“Rapture in Black”), and Essex, England (“Custos Sanctorum”). 

The high level of inter-textual continuity is surprising, in that none of these stories are mere pastiches. I was profoundly charmed by the mystical “Transition of Zadok Allen” which concludes the prose section of the book. The trio of poems at the end are of mixed value, and they are sequenced by increasing length and greater conformity to the contents of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The whole collection is quite worthwhile, and I would recommend it to fans of weird horror generally, beyond addicts of Lovecraftiana.

The Three Impostors and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three Impostors and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed. and introduced by S T Joshi, volume 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen, in Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.

Machen Joshi The Three Impostors and other stories

This volume contains Machen’s first published story, the notorious yellow-nineties fright “The Great God Pan,” accompanied by “The Inmost Light” with which it was published in its original book form, as well as the short story “The Shining Pyramid” and the full novel The Three Impostors. This last is often cannibalized for its fine component stories, such as “The Novel of the Black Seal.” Overall, the whole collection is a pleasure to read for those whose tastes run to the uncanny and the quietly twisted. 

“The Great God Pan” is indispensable for its influence on later writers, including Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), King (“N”), and Straub (Ghost Story), and — as is actually fairly typical of 19th-century horror literature (think of Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) — it uses a science-fictional innovation to touch off a series of frightful events. In this case, it is brain surgery. “The great god Pan is dead!” has been supposed by centuries of Plutarch’s readers to have meant that the resurrection of Christ was the death-knell of Hellenistic paganism. The identity of horned Pan with the Christian devil is nearly explicit in Machen’s story, with the additional wrinkle that this inhuman evil is a reality against which we are shielded by a little bit of neuroanatomy!

There are two interesting observations to be made about name of the outre femme fatale Helen Vaughan. Helena was the name of the partner of the seminal Gnostic sorcerer/heresiarch Simon Magus, so Helen is a fittingly allusive name for what is really a sort of antichrist figure who reverses the action of Christian salvation. To have her mother — raped by Pan/Satan — named “Mary” is a nice touch. Vaughan seems to have been a name that Machen liked. He uses it again for an unrelated male character in “The Shining Pyramid,” where its Welsh provenance ties in to the setting. It is evocative of the 17th-century Rosicrucian alchemist Thomas Vaughan, and in his invention of Helen Vaughan, Machen may have been a contributor to the later character Diana Vaughan, the high priestess of the alleged Luciferian sex-and-black-magic cult of the Palladium that controlled worldwide Freemasonry, all manner of occult societies, and even major non-Christian religions, according to the conspiracy-monger Leo Taxil. It is entirely in keeping with the perversity of Taxil’s enterprise that he would take the name Vaughan from Machen’s fiction.

There is a decided vein of misogyny running through the stories in this book, paired with a horror of sex that is positively stunning. Despite these Victorian failings, Machen really delivers a sense of the supernatural, expressing the philosophical position that he puts in the mouth of one of his characters: “I have told you I was of sceptical habit; but though I understood little or nothing, I began to dread, vainly proposing to myself the iterated dogmas of science that all life is material, and that in the system of things there is no undiscovered land, even beyond the remotest stars, where the supernatural can find a footing. Yet there struck in on this the thought that matter is as really awful and unknown as spirit, that science itself but dallies on the threshold, scarcely gaining more than a glimpse of the wonders of the inner place.” (154-155) 

Many of the characters are medical doctors or authors. The former help to brighten the line between the quotidian and the monstrous, while the latter serve as speakers and foils for Machen’s aesthetic agenda. “[P]erhaps you are aware that no Carthusian monk can emulate the cloistral seclusion in which a realistic novelist secludes himself. It is his way of observing human nature,” (195) jibes the writer Dyson, a continuing protagonist of several of the stories in this volume. 

Machen (like Dyson) was certainly no realist. His fiction is abundantly open to the charge that the plots rest on coincidental events of such improbability as to remove them entirely from the believable. And yet, they hold together if the reader is led to infer some fatalistic, supernatural influence driving the experiences of the protagonists. “The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working.” (209)