Thursday, November 14, 2013

AYLMER VANCE: GHOST-SEER by Alice and Claude Askew

Wordsworth Editions has started a marvelous series of horror and mystery reprints, and I snapped a handful or two when I could, and am finally getting around to reading them now that I've getting settled in at the new place and adapting to a new normal.

Alice and Claude Askew were prolific writers of pulp fiction in the early part of the 20th century. A husband-and-wife team, they wrote a slew of works, and even had a few adapted for the stage and the silent screen. They were involved in support and relief for Serbians during WWI, operating in Serbia and Corfu. (For some reason I find Corfu impossibly exotic and enticing. I'll say it again. Corfu.) They died together in 1917 when a ship they were traveling on was sunk by a German torpedo.

This slender volume of short stories (only 127 pages) is a very nice example of the early 20th century occult detective genre.Some are built around supernatural menaces, and a few are more mystical in their outlook. The first tale, "The Invader," is a tale of possession, but the next, "The Stranger," tells a story of a woman who is apparently beloved of a pagan god and eventually rejects an earthly suitor to join her true love. (In that respect it's reminiscent of the preachy Dr. Tavener stories by Dion Fortune, only less preachy.)

"Lady Green-Sleeves" is an occultist love story with no real detection. "The Fire Unquenchable" tells of a series of mysterious fires and poltergeist activity ties into a deceased poet's unfinished work. "The Vampire" is a fun variation, mixing vampirism with possession. "The Boy of Blackstock" revolves around a haunting and an unhappy marriage. "The Indissoluble Bond" is more mystical in exploring a girl's bond to a man who may be her destruction. "The Fear" is a more straightforward tale of a destructive haunting.

The stories do follow a progression; the narrator, Dexter, moves from being an acquaintance hearing some stories, to Vance's partner in detection. And there's a thread in these stories that distresses me...a few times, the solution to a haunting is the complete razing and destruction of an old manor or castle, something that would have M. R. James screaming in horror. It made me blanch, that's for sure.

This entertaining collection can be purchased by itself in paperback by the aforementioned Wordsworth Editions, but you can also get an electronic edition from Ash-Tree Press that contains two other collection of occult detection, Rose Champion de Crespigny's Norton Vyse stories, and Kate & Hesketh Prichard's Flaxman Low stories. Take your pick with these.

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