This is how vampires work. They’re like drugs. They make us feel. They make us want more. We know they hurt us, but it’s just so good, and we’re just so fucking empty that we’ll do anything for a pleasurable death, since it’s so much better than a boring life.
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.
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.
For a book that collects a comic starting with issue #1, this really gets going in media res. It’s full of exotic supporting characters who get defined on the fly. While the Xombi’s powers are the result of hyper-technological “nanites,” his friends and foes seem to be mostly supernaturally religious/occult in their origins and orientations. They seem to have some larger background, because they shared in an earlier series, but they are all sort of quirky and enigmatic anyway: the tone is closer to Bob Burden than Jack Kirby. Superpowered nuns and rabbis are funny, right? Although the original Xombi from the 1990s became involved with the larger DC superhero milieu, this reboot sequence (by the original writer) is more contained. The origin story is not rehashed, but rather dribbled out through incidental allusion.
I was motivated to pick this up to read because the art looked good: Frazer Irving provides expressive painted panels throughout, and there are a generous number of full-page tableaux. The six issues of the new series conclude a distinct plot arc “The Ninth Stronghold,” and the 2009 re-debut of Xombi in The Brave and the Bold 26 is appended to these. Scott Hampton’s art in the latter is looser and more expressionistic.
I came to Tim Powers’ Declare on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, and also Charles Stross’ comparison to his own work in The Atrocity Archives. Although the subject matter of espionage plus supernatural elements was certainly similar to Stross’ “Laundry” novels, I was surprised to find myself comparing Declare to a very different, and altogether more popular book: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Both are bulky, character-oriented novels rooted in the socio-political frames of particular periods; both are self-consciously English; both have emotional depth; both mix in some real historical persons as characters; both introduce their central supernatural elements in a gradual manner; and in both cases those elements are anchored in archaic intelligences and their complex relations with humanity. I would even compare the narrative role that Powers assigns to T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to that occupied by the Raven King in Clarke’s book. And both Powers and Clarke are performing a comparable sort of transcendent pastiche: adding magic to the LeCarre spy thriller on the one hand and to the Austen saga of realist satire on the other. Powers gets more points for fidelity to history, Clarke for verisimilitude of magic.
Comparisons aside, I did very much enjoy Declare. It was not a flawless book. There was a certain attribution of supernatural efficacy to Christian piety and sacraments that was never properly justified, and I occasionally found a sentence in laughable need of easy repair. (An example of both from p. 486: “He opened his mouth to speak the first words of the Our Father, but realized that he had forgotten them.”) But there is a healthy and profitable use of dramatic irony — attentive readers can stay a half-step ahead of the central characters — and Powers manages to instill a real numinosity into the higher orders of espionage that he invents for World War II and the Cold War. The psychology of double-agency is a long-standing interest of mine, and Powers makes it central to his novel in a way that I appreciated. The recruitment and induction of spies (“agent-runners”) is presented through an explicitly initiatory framework that should be accessible and engaging to those who share those interests with me as well.