Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 17, 2021


 Aylmer Vance : Ghost Seer by Alice & Claude Askew  (individual stories first published in 1914; collection first published in 1998)

The occult detective has has a long and distinguished career in literature, going back to the mid-ninetennth century, at least.  Previous to that time others have battled supernatural forces, but none truly specialized in the supernatural.  Fitz-James O'Brien's Harry Escott, J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Martin Hesselius, Bram Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing, E. and H. Heron's Flaxman Lowe, Algernon Blakwood's John Silence, William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, Champion de Crespigny's Norton Vyse, Sax Rohmer's Morris Klaw, Dion Fortune's Dr. Taverner, Aleister Crowley's Simon Iff, Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, Manly Wade Wellman's John Thunstone, Jack Mann's Gees, Margery Lawrence's Miles Pennoyer, and Joseph Payne Brennan's Lucius Leffing...all have paved the way for the current batch of occult detectives such as Dirk Gentley (Dougla Adams), Repairman Jack (F. Paul Wilson), Titus Crow (Brian Lumley), Felix Castor (Mike Carey), Joe Golem (Mike Mignola), Diana Tregarde Mercedes Lackey), Anita Blake (Laurel Hamilton), and Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher), among many others.  I won't even get into the many occult detecives from films, television, and  comics.  Today's occult detectives are many and varied, utilizing different approaches to the genre.

Let's also throw in alternate world detectives such as Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy into the mix.

In 1914, Alice (1874-1917) and Claude (1865-1917) Askew created occult detective Aylmer Vance, an nvestigator for the Ghost Circle, in a story for The Weekly Tale-Teller's July 4,1914 issue.  Vance's saga (such as it was) continued for the next seven issues, ending on August 22.  Then they moved on to something else.  The Askews began collaborating shortly after their marriage in 1900, churning out numerous short stories and (it is said) over ninety novels, many published as seriel stories in popular weeklies.  Supposedly many of their plots were dreamed up, literally.  Upon waking, the plots were written down quickly, before the dream was forgotten.  If Alice had a plot, she would write the first half of a story and her husband would compete it; if Claude had a plot the reverse would happen.  World War I had the couple volunteering for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, where they were at the Belgian front delivering food and warm clothes to the soldiers.  After a brief respite in England, the pair volunteered for the British field hospital attached to the Serbian army.  They were there for several months before the Serbians in their "Great Retreat" during the winter of 1915-16.  Claude was given anhonorary commission as a major in the Serbian army.  Following the Great Reteat, the Askews returned to England briefly before Claude returned to Serbia to work at their Press Bureau, while Alice remained in London, pregnant with their third child.  The child was born in July 1916 and Alice joined her husband later in October of that year.  On October 6,1917, Alice and Claude Askew were aboard an Italian steamship headed from Rome to Corfu when it was sunk by a German submarine just short of its destination.  Both Askews drowned.  Claude's body was never recovered, while Alice's was washed up a little more than three weeks later.

Aylmer Vance was a tall, lean, solitary man who was undoubtly of independent means as he was later described as one who approached his.profession as a dilletante rather than one interested in money, thus taking cases that only appealed to him.  The first of the eight stories began with the narrator, a London Barrister named Dexter, renewing an earlier acquaintance with Vance when both were staying at the Magpie Inn -- Dexter for some pike fishing and Vance for unknowns reasons.  A friendship developed with Dexter unabashedly interested in Vance's cases.  Vance, as noted above, was an investigator for the Ghost Circle -- an organization referred to but never fully explained; as such, Vance was often away at various points of the globe.  Vance agrees to tell Dexter about some of his cases, which are related inthe first four stories of the book.  Dexter, it turns out, has some undiscovered psychic abilities of his own.  He agrees to join Vance in his investigations and, for the remaining four tales, he assists Vance.  (Dexter is also independetly wealthy so he can afford to do so.)

As occult detectives go, Vance is not the top card in the deck.  His cases often could be considered failures, ending in tragic circumstances.  He is often late to the party in investigating strange occurances and his results are not the most praiseworthy.  This does not bother him because no one really knows the ultimate purposes of these pyschic events and what may seem tragic on this plain could be something completely different when viewed from another.  Vance basically views his cases as experiences that may bring him closer to a cosmic truth.  And to top it all off, he is a bit ponderous and dull.  It is no wonder that his cases took 84 years to appear in book form.  This is not to say these stories are unworthy.  They were written at the close of an age that embraced spiritualism and are a product of their time.  The psychic phenomena Vance encounters are various and sometimes ingenious.  These tales may seem plodding at times but they are not pointless.  Some are actually exciting reading.  And at 120 pages, the book goes quickly.

The stories:

  • "The Invader"  Vance relates the case that first got him interested in psychic phenomena.  A good friend finds two gold bracelets while exploring a barrow on his property.  Rather than Roman relics, as he thought, these were once the property of a cruel pagan British queen.  Interested in the paranormal, Vance's friend places his wife under hypnosis in an attempt to channel her spirit.  It works all too well and the queen assumes the wife's body, not giving up its possession.  It ends tragically.  Most of these stories feature a beautiful woman with a tragic flaw.  In this case, the woman is rather dull and subservient -- and it is her beauty that allows her husband (and, we learn later, Vance himself) to fall in love with her.  These beauties are invriably either married or engaged to splendid examples of British manhood.  
  • "The Stranger"  Vance is the guardian of Daphne Darrell, the child of Vsnce's friends who had died when Daphne was only a few months old.  Daphne was raised by her aunt.  Daphne's ftal flaw appears to be stubbornness.  Since a young child she insisted on sleeping outdoors in a hammock and her doting aunt would acquiesce.  Daphne also loved to go knto the nearby woods alone, where, she claimed, she often met a strange man.  A part of Daphne fell in love with this stranger.  Now at age 19, Daphne is engaged to a suitable young man, one whom she likes fondly but does not love.  Her love is reserved for the stranger in the forest, whose name she never knew, whose hand she never touched, but, she admitted privately to Vance, one whom she has continued to see since childhood.  On the eve of her wedding, Daphne runs off to the wood and meets her tragic fate.  The stranger she loved may well have been an old god.
  • "Lady Green-Sleeves"  Vance falls in love with a toung woman sighted at a ball.  The only problem is that she is dead and has been for over a hundred years.
  • "The Fire Unquenchable"  Ewan Trail was a monomaniacal poet, but was unable to sell any of his poetry.  Meeting rejection from publishers, he went somewhat mad, running around the property destroying his manuscripts one by one and then killing himself.  He may be gone, but the fire of his inspiration lived on -- small fires have been popping up unexplainedly.  In an attempot to stop the fires, Vance places Trail's young widow under a trance and gets the poems from the poet's ghost.  And the poems were really good.  Vance arranges to publish the manuscript and Trail is recognized as a modern genius.  The fires stop.
  • "The Vampire"  The most anthologized story in the book.  Paul Davenport, renowned amateur polo player, has been married for about a year.  Now he has awakened with two bloody marks on his neck.  Yep, his beautiful bride has turned into a vampire.  In one of his few successes, Vance comes to the rescue, but Davenport must tear down his home, Blackwood Castle, brick by brick and have every brick ground to pwder and burned.
  • "The Boy of Blackstock"  The boy is actually a young man, a former servant, who acts as a poltergeist.  When he becomes visible, it is only to one person, and that person will die within a few days.  Lord Rystone is a mean and overbearing person.  When his wife has had enough and plans to run off with another man, Rystone goes after them with a gun, but on seeing the Boy of Blackstock collapses from apolexy and dies a few days later.  His widow soon happliy remarries.
  • The Indissoluable Bond"  Pretty Beryl Verriker loves music.  Her parents grow concerned when she locks her bedroom door and escapes out the window.  They have no idea where she is going and she has been acting somewhat strangely lately.  Her fiance is abroad and will soon return to marry Beryl.  Vance places Dexter in a trance so that his astral body can follow the young girl to reveal the truth.  She goes to a local church where a rather disgusting man is playing the organ.  When he plays he is able to control the girl's spirit but not her body.  After death, he says, they can be together forever.  She is repulsed by him but cannot escape his music.  Vance determines that the only thing that might save herwill be her marriage, replacing one affinity with a newer and stronger one.  On the day of her marriage she is again compelled to visit the organist who has just died before his organ.  Can his dead body continue to take control of her soul.
  • "The Fear"  This is a tale of a generations-long rivalry dating back to the day.\ of the Stuarts.  Robert Ballinston has just taken residence at Camplin Castle with his family -- a wife and four children.  From the very first day Ballinston's family and household staff have been attacked by extreme feelings of fear, feelings that can come on with no notice anywhere in the castle.  It has gotten so bad that he was forced to leave Camplin Castle in less than a month from occuying it.  Vance investigates and discovers the residue of a forgotten tragedy.  Once again the nly solution is to raze the building.
Interesting and sometimes plodding, this volume is recommended for fans of occult detectives,  but only after exhausting the tales of other detectives like Carnacki, John Silence, and Jules de Grandin.


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  2. And don't forget our rather By Circumstances investigator Max Kearney (stories by Ron Goulart...for whom Kearney was a mildly autobiographical character) and the similarly "taking things as they come" John, from Manly Wade Wellman's most famous series of own favorites.