May 222014
 
"The House in the Magnolias" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer is another tale that first appeared in the pulp STRANGE STORIES, in the July 1932 issue. In this one, the narrator is a landscape painter, John Stuard, who comes across a picturesque old mansion just outside New Orleans surrounded by magnolias. Stuard wants to paint a picture of it, so he asks permission of a woman who lives there
Apr 262012
 

1st UK edition, artwork by Chris Yates
This was one of those books I came across because of a comment on one of the many blogs I read. I noted the title, went looking for a copy and when they all proved to be in horrid condition set aside my search. Then a very cheap 1st UK edition came up for sale on eBay so I bought it and eagerly read the book hoping that it would prove to be as advertised by the commenter who called it the best by author P.B. Yuill, "a horror/whodunit on the lines of [T]he Wicker Man." The paperback edition plastered on its cover a blurb from a review that appeared in The Observer: "The most haunting novel of terror since The Hound of the Baskervilles." Typical P.R. hyperbole as far as I'm concerned.

Peacock Island is home to the eccentric recluse Lady Bennett. She allows no one to set foot on her land. The only boat allowed to dock brings her monthly groceries that are left beneath a bench. One day a crew member on the delivery boat notices that the bag usually left empty in full view on top of the bench has not been touched. He suspects something is wrong and daringly sets out to the Lady Bennett's home, an old country house with a Gothic facade and other tasteless Victorian crenelations that make it appear to be a castle. When he doesn't return his brother goes in search of him and finds some gruesome surprises inside the castle. The police are called and a murder investigation begins. There is a parallel story of a TV documentary crew who get word of the murder and set off to illegally make a movie about the crimes. Any reader can guess that these characters exist as only the characters in a slasher movie exist - as future victims.

While the book does a good job of creating an atmosphere of creepy Gothic chills with a killer dressed in a weird outfit of feathers and man-made claws who roams the island in search of victims I found the book overall to be extremely familiar. Granted it was published in 1974 prior to the onslaught of slasher movies and similar "they're all doomed" thrillers about people trapped on an island at the mercy of a mad killer, but it just didn't do it for me. From the very start I got too many echoes of August Derleth's love of Gothic family secrets, Hammer Horror films, and the entire 1980s slasher movie craze that have used plot ideas and situations found in The Bornless Keeper. I'm usually quick to place books like this in the evolution of crime and modern horror fiction, and I ought to give the writer some credit for perhaps being something of a groundbreaker. This novel could easily be seen as a forerunner to much more terrifying and suspenseful books in the same vein as The Silence of the Lambs and The Running of Beasts, but because it does it less skillfully I am reluctant to give it that place of honor.

UK paperback edition
Prior to the halfway mark when the entire book devolves into something akin to a sequel in the Friday the 13th franchise there were some interesting allusions to the ecological decay of the island, commentary of industrial pollution, and jabs at the thoughtlessness of tourists who use lakes and rivers as their dumping ground. I was hoping that the writer would expand upon this and that the mad killer would turn out to be some kind of monstrous thing along the lines of the creature in the very weird, unintentionally campy, 1979 horror movie Prophecy. No such luck. All of the eerie, supernatural qualities quickly dissipate along with the sideline ecological commentary and we are left with nothing more than another psycho killer tale. We get ersatz Gothic secrets, a dash of Blochian necrophilia, hidden tombs, and a very disturbing rape scene.

The strength of the book is really not in the very familiar horror elements but rather in the depiction of the policeman characters. Inspector Victor Daniels is at war with his superior Supt. Groves. What keeps the book alive is the caustic relationship between these two very different policemen. Groves is an insulting boss with little tolerance for creativity in crime solving and Daniels endures his bullying with restrained anger. While Daniels takes phone calls from the local historian who links a local legend with past crimes and does research on Lady Bennett's family tree, Groves scoffs at him and does yeoman police work delegating his men to look for stolen boats and local thugs who might have been interrupted on a trespassing adventure. I liked the police business here and thought the contrast between the ex-city dwelling Daniels and the gruff, bullheaded Groves was handled well. Daniels is a sympathetic character and you root for him to show up his narrow-minded boss. He does some decent detective work even if most of it happens through telephone calls.

The characters making up the TV crew on the other hand are the stuff of B movies. Tiresome, flat portrayals of a driven bitchy woman producer, her handsome Lothario assistant producer, the sad sack married cameraman who desires her, and a cipher character who you know will be the killer's first victim. None of the drivelly soap opera subplots between this quartet was interesting. I skimmed over these pages just waiting for someone to get knocked off or "disappear" only to "reappear" in the violent finale that is telegraphed amateurishly in previous chapters.
 Posted by at 3:03 am
Apr 042012
 
With only a few quibbles I think Sign of Fear (1935) may be the best of the Judge Peck books. Derleth's series about the Wisconsin judge seemed extremely formulaic to me with his love of Gothic households, families ruled by stern matriarchs doing their best to keep in line the back biting relatives, and closets filled with a battalion of skeletons rattling all too loudly. Murder Stalks the Wakely Family, The Man on All Fours, and The Narracong Riddle all seem to be variations on a theme so overplayed that the last book in that list is a very close rewrite of the second. I was planning on reading the entire series but quickly tired of the repetition. Then I found the Sign of Fear – one of the rarest of the Judge Peck books – in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi and had to buy it. As I pored over the pages it became clear that here was a book that breaks away from Derleth's comfort zone and manages to put some truly original spins on his version of the fair play detective novel.

First, the matriarch is absent from the family. Instead we have two unmarried brothers and a female cousin making up Derleth's usual haunted family. Second, there is a mysterious murder method that is not made known until the halfway mark. Third, there is the anthropology background and some fascinating lore on ancient Peruvian superstition and religious symbols in South American culture. Finally, there is a bravura courtroom performance in which Judge Peck acts as defense attorney for one of the brothers who is accused of murder. It all makes for a highly enjoyable mystery.

Incan artifact (© F. D. Rasmussen) 
Christopher Jannichon, archaeologist, has been called back from Peru to his Wisconsin home by a series of strange postcards containing weird markings and ominous warnings. When he arrives at his home he finds similar markings drawn in the snow on the grounds of the Prairie estate and learns his brother Cornelius has also received similar anonymous postcards with odd symbols. The dominate symbol is described as "a cross topped with a cedilla" (though the illustration on the DJ shows a cross topped with a circumflex), known to both brothers through their extensive reading of Incan culture as the "God-help-us!" mark. It is clear to the Jannichons that someone is threatening them and they speculate it may have to do with Christopher's research in ancient Incan life. They consult with Judge Peck who is invited to stay the weekend when several relatives and friends are planning to visit the two Jannichon brothers. That night their cousin Edna suffers a mysterious fatal attack. She is found dead on the floor of her bedroom an expression of terror on her face. Beneath her body is a slip of paper with one of the "God-help-us!" symbols drawn in red ink. The threats have come true, but was Edna the intended victim?

The detection here is well done and, for the most part, follows all the tenets of fair play. Judge Peck learns that both Edna and Cornelius used a similar face powder (Cornelius has sensitive skin and used the powder as an aftershave emollient). On the night of the death Cornelius told his housekeeper the jar of powder in his room was not his and to put it back wherever it belonged. Judge Peck is sure that the powder found in Edna's room was the means of death somehow altered though no sign of poison is found during the post mortem. He is also certain that Cornelius was the intended victim since the powder was originally in his room. Then Christopher suffers a similar attack in which he has difficulty breathing and nearly asphyxiates. He is saved just in time. There seems to be a mad murderer in the Jannichon household armed with some mysterious means of causing death. The investigation will uncover a long lost relative, a convoluted inheritance, and a family history of respiratory ailments that are crucial to the solution of Edna's murder and several murder attempts of other characters.

Judge Peck does an admirable Perry Mason
imitation in Sign of Fear
As is the case in John Rhode's best books it is the painstaking detection, collaboration between medical experts, and Judge Peck's keen intuition that lead to the discovery of a truly diabolical murder method. In the gripping courtroom sequence that might have been lifted out of a Perry Mason novel Judge Peck calls forth witness after witness slowly building his case and making a startling revelation that brings a collective gasp to the entire courtroom. Though there are a few pieces of the overall puzzle that come as last minute revelations in the testimony of two witnesses I still laughed in amazement; Peck's solution makes for a stunning surprise.

If you want to read a Judge Peck book I suggest that you make this your number one pick. Most of the Judge Peck books are extremely scarce with Sign of Fear and Three Who Died being the most uncommon of the series. This book is nearly impossible to find and I count myself among the lucky to have found a copy. There is only the US hardback edition (Loring & Mussey, 1935) and not one paperback reprint in either the U.S. or the U.K. If you're lucky a copy may turn up in a library somewhere.
 Posted by at 6:44 pm