Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer by Alice & Claude Askew
As I have said elsewhere, this reader has long been a sucker for the Victorian/Edwardian ghost hunter. Previously, I had enjoyed the exploits of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence — who had tackled, in the author’s five-story collection of 1908, a haunted house, a French town peopled by shape shifters, an Egyptian fire elemental, devil worship, and a nontraditional werewolf — and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, who had gone up against, in the six-story collection of 1913 that was expanded to nine stories 35 years later, haunted abodes, a ghostly horse, weird noises, spectral daggers and maggots, a haunted ship, and a soul-sucking swine monster! But even lovers of these two classic volumes may not have had the opportunity to encounter the supernatural sleuth known as Aylmer Vance, whose eight adventures first appeared in eight consecutive issues (July — August) of The Weekly Tale-Teller, back in 1914. This British weekly magazine consisted of new short stories and ran from 1909 – 1916, managing, over the course of its 365-issue run, to keep its cover price at “one penny” all that time. The Aylmer Vance stories were written by the wife-and-husband team of Alice and Claude Askew, both of whom had been born in London (in 1874, for Alice; 1865, for Claude), and who wrote some 90 (!) novels together before their premature deaths in 1917 (the Italian steamer that they were on was sunk by a German submarine). All of those books have likewise sunk into obscurity, but thanks to the fine folks at Wordsworth Editions, and their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series, this 2006 volume, entitled Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer, survives as a token of what terrific writers the Askews apparently were. All eight of the stories here are winners, penned in a supremely readable style that manages to pull the reader right in. Personally, I loved every single one.
The eight tales here are loosely connected and are narrated by a man named Dexter, who meets Vance while the two are staying at the same countryside inn. The first three stories consist of experiences that Vance had previously gone through; old cases that he regales Dexter with. (These older cases were truly in the Edwardian era; the others, transpiring as they do in current times — that is, 1914 — must technically be deemed Georgian.) In the fourth, transitional story, Dexter is made to realize that he has certain latent psychical abilities himself, and in the final four tales, he becomes something of a right-hand man to Vance, going so far as to move into the same house as his mentor in London. The two make for a good and fearless team, if hardly an effective one. In story after story, the two manage to ferret out the source of a haunting or spectral occurrence, but are yet powerless to prevent the ghastly sequence of events from progressing. Often, their only suggestion to the owner of a haunted pile is to move out and raze the place to the ground. Many of the stories thus end in tragedy, even for the innocent, and those early 20th century clients looking for a quick and easy solution to the supernatural mishegas that had been besetting their lives might have been advised to look elsewhere. Vance is courageous and keen witted, but it seems that there is only so much that he is capable of doing. No easy exorcisms in this book, that’s for sure! The eight cases that we become privy to are invariably atmospheric, although some are more chilling than others. Happily, none of the spooky events told of here has as its provenance a hoax or spurious causality. All of the ghosts that we encounter are real, not fakes, and most of them are inimical, nasty, and holders of grudges against the living. In short, they make for an octet of real challenges for the experienced Vance and the tyro Dexter.
As for the stories themselves, in “The Invader,” Vance tells of the tragedy that had befallen on his old college friend, George Sinclair, and on George’s new bride, a Scotch girl named Annie. George had dug up an ancient armlet on his property and had later begun to perform experiments on his wife, using her as a medium to effect communication with the dead. But matters grew fairly serious when the spirit of a long-deceased British princess had entered Annie’s body … and then refused to leave after the séance was over! George, thus, was forced to watch as his sweet and gentle wife became progressively more unhinged, ultimately resulting in a double — and possibly triple — tragedy for all concerned. Truly, a chilling tale to get this collection under way.
Vance’s next tale, “The Stranger,” is one that Algernon Blackwood might well have smiled upon with approbation. Here, Vance tells of his young ward, Daphne Darrell, for whom Aylmer once served as guardian. Daphne had been a true child of nature, cavorting in the woods, sleeping every night on a hammock outdoors, and, as she would tell Vance on the eve of her wedding, in love with another man; a godlike youth whom she’d been encountering in the forests ever since she was a young girl. Vance, naturally, advises her to forget this fantastic stranger, to marry her solid Englishman, and to lead a normal life. But again, our story ends with tragedy. Or does it? On second reflection, this seemingly unfortunate conclusion might be just the outcome that Daphne may have wished for…
In “Lady Green-Sleeves,” Vance tells Dexter of the great love of his life. The only problem is: The woman happened to be over a century dead. Vance had met the charming lass at a costume ball, and had asked her to dance after seeing that the beauty was being ignored by everybody else. But the 17-year-old had promptly admitted to Vance that she was unfamiliar with the music, and was only a ghost who had returned to her old home for a look around. Lady Green-Sleeves, as Vance would think of her in later years, is the only spectral manifestation in this volume that is not a frightening or threatening one. Indeed, the story is as charming as can be, and concludes on a pleasingly wistful — as opposed to tragic — note. My only problem with the story: when Vance remarks that the events had occurred 12 years earlier, and, a little later, 10.
“The Fire Unquenchable” is the tale in which our Mr. Dexter realizes that he has the ability to close his eyes and visualize distant events, causing him to quit his dull job as a barrister and become Aylmer Vance’s assistant. His first vision is a truly disorienting one, which he obtains after reading an unpublished book of poetry that Vance had given him to peruse. The recently deceased poet had once lived at Cheswold Lodge, which abode is currently giving its new owner many problems. Mysterious fires have erupted all over the property, some of them out of thin air, and Vance had been called in to investigate. Eventually, our ghost busters learn the truth about the lengths that a writer, poet or artist will go to to see his or her genius reach the light of day…
In “The Vampire,” newlywed athlete Paul Davenant comes to Vance’s office with a strange show-and-tell story. He’d been losing weight and energy as of late, had become increasingly pale, and also had what looked like two bite marks on his neck. His bride, a flame-haired Scotswoman née Jessica MacThane, claimed that her family lived under the curse of vampirism, begat centuries before by a witch named Zaida. Could that possibly have anything to do with it? Well, what would you think? In what is perhaps this collection’s most atmospheric story, Vance and Dexter travel up to Jessica’s ancestral home, Blackwick Castle, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this dilemma, and for once, Vance’s efforts are successful in averting another tragedy. His method of disposing of the story’s nemesis, however, is an unconvincing one. Still, over all, a most impressive piece of work.
“The Boy of Blackstock” gives us the story of the current Lord Rystone, who had just moved into the ancestral pile known as Blackstock Priory with his family, only to have the legendary poltergeist known as “The Mischievous Boy” start to make trouble. As the legend goes, the boy would appear to each Lord Rystone immediately before that august personage’s death, a tradition that has dated back to the time of the Stuarts. The current Lord Rystone believes that someone is merely trying to drive him away from his new home, and has enlisted Vance to find out the truth. Many suspects do indeed crop up in Rystone’s household, including the servants, his sons’ suspicious-looking tutor, and his young, unhappy and secretive wife. But what is actually going on in the secret-passage-riddled relic known as Blackstock Priory?
In “The Indissoluble Bond,” Vance and Dexter make the acquaintance of one Col. Verriker and his family. The colonel, sometime later, comes to Vance with a problem: His daughter, Beryl, has lately become abstracted, has been complaining of headaches, is going into trances, and has been wandering off for hours from her home. Upon investigation, Vance learns that she has come under the domination of a local church organist named Cuthbert Ford, whose weird, unearthly melodies have been pulling Beryl to him, even over great distances. He claims to be Beryl’s soulmate, although Beryl is already engaged to another man. Cuthbert’s eventual death causes one and all to breathe a sigh of relief, but as events prove, in one of the most shocking wedding scenes that you’ll ever want to read, not even the timeworn phrase “Till death do us part” can make a difference to the truly infatuated…
This collection concludes with the appropriately titled story “The Fear,” in which a wealthy businessman, Robert Balliston, hires Vance to find out why his new home, Camplin Castle, radiates an aura of disabling horror to all who step into it. Thus, Vance (who, we learn in this story, prefers to be thought of as a dilettante in the field of psychical research, and not a professional) and Dexter do indeed spend a few nerve-racking nights in the Hampshire abode, hearing the cries of a whimpering child and the pattering of bare feet, before finally learning the history of the wretched home. As the tale concludes, Vance is compelled to admit his powerlessness in the face of such saturated and concentrated nastiness, bringing this collection to a grimly downbeat close.
If I would level one small complaint about this octet of stories as a whole, it is that we never learn enough about Aylmer Vance himself, other than the fact that he is a member of an organization called the Ghost Circle. The eight Aylmer Vance stories that the Askews left us are all marvelous, and I cannot imagine any reader not wishing that there were a dozen more such, so as to learn more about this fascinating character. Such a pity that the Askews’ careers — and their lives — had to be cut so tragically short! Impressively written, evocative and spooky, the Vance tales in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer are perfect fare for all fans of the literate supernatural. As for this reader, I still have not gotten around to reading the stories featuring Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius, Ella Scrymsour’s Shiela Crerar, or Kate Prichard’s Flaxman Low, and those are the Victorian and Edwardian ghost busters whom I hope to be encountering next…
This sounds like a jewel of a collection, and the backstory of the writers is fascinating! I’ll have to hunt it down and get it. These seem like perfect winter reading.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Marion!