And so, I have just come to the end of a lot of nine novels from the remarkable publisher known as Valancourt Books. And what an ennead they were! In chronological order: Ernest G. Henham’s Tenebrae (1898), a tale of fratricide, guilt, madness … and giant spiders; R.C. Ashby’s He Arrived at Dusk (1933), which tells of the ghost of a Roman centurion haunting modern-day Northumberland; G.S. Marlowe’s I Am Your Brother (1935), in which we encounter a mutant sibling who may (or may not) be imaginary; Frank Baker’s The Birds (1936), an avian apocalyptic affair; J.U. Nicolson’s Fingers of Fear (1937), which incorporates murders, ghosts, vampires and insanity into its mind-boggling story line; Oliver Onions’ The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (1939), in which a deaf/mute man of science harbors special plans for his young ward; Franklin Gregory’s The White Wolf (1941), a tale of lycanthropy in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside; Russell Thorndike’s The Master of the Macabre (1947), an anthology-horror novel that contains no fewer than a dozen startling stories; and now, finally, John Symonds’ Bezill, a novel that is perhaps the most unusual item in this unusual group, for the simple reason that it is so very mundane.
Bezill was originally released in 1962 as a hardcover volume by the British publisher Unicorn Press, and featuring cover art by the famed Hungarian author and illustrator Val Biro. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 60 years, till Valancourt opted to resurrect it in 2022, and sporting that same Val Biro artwork on the front cover. As for the book’s author, Symonds was born in London in 1914 and found fame as a playwright, children’s book author, novelist and biographer. Today, he is probably best remembered for the four (!) biographies that he wrote dealing with the British occultist Aleister Crowley, aka “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Symonds, happily, enjoyed a nice long life, ultimately passing away in 2006, at age 92.
Now, as for this 1962 novel of his, it introduces the reader to one Geoffrey Pellerin, a 23-year-old student of classical literature who, when we first encounter him, is traveling by rail to his new post in some unnamed eastern British county. Pellerin, we suspect, is leaving London not so much to start his new job as a tutor as to escape the smothering attentions of his would-be fiancée, Gladys Pasquier. While en route to his destination, Bezill Tower – and don’t ask me if “Bezill” is pronounced “BEH-zill” or “BEE-zill; there is just no way to know, and no reference is ever made to the unusual name – in (the fictitious town of) Windwood, Pellerin chances to meet the former tutor, Henry Chauncy, who had been sacked for unbecoming conduct, and who warns Geoffrey of the unusual inmates whom he is about to encounter. And indeed, it really is quite an oddball bunch that the new tutor finds waiting for him. Herbert Shakeshaft, his 15-year-old pupil, is an innocent epileptic who looks to be about half his actual age. His mother, the widowed Alice Shakeshaft, despite being in her 30s, is aloof, sexless, and an avid enthusiast of foxhunting and similar blood sports; she’s “as cold as an ice lolly,” as Pellerin thinks of her at least half a dozen times over the course of the book. And then there’s the fat, bald Mr. Gayfere, who also lives at Bezill Tower and whose exact relationship with the family is at first blush a mysterious one. Not to mention Wales, the butler who has been pilfering wine bottles from the cellar, and Beatrice, the black maid from exotic St. Helena, with whom the previous tutor had fallen into disgrace.
As the autumn months proceed, Pellerin finds himself becoming quite attached to his sweet young student, while he also finds himself becoming inexplicably attracted to Mrs. Shakeshaft, despite the fact that he is repelled by her love of hunting and her standoffish ways. He also becomes intrigued by some of the house’s mysteries, especially the locked tower in which supposedly reside the belongings of Herbert’s deceased father, as well as the effects of his aunt, who is currently locked away in a mental institution. Ultimately, Mrs. Shakeshaft tells Pellerin that the lessons he is giving Herbert in Latin and the classical arts are not the only subjects that she wishes to be included in her son’s syllabus; indeed, she now proposes that Pellerin give his young ward a thorough initiation into the facts of life … the birds and the bees, as it were. Thus, the new tutor proposes a tour of Europe for himself and his young student, leading to the two winding up at a series of brothels in Lisbon, of all places. But many surprises await the pair upon their return to Bezill Tower…
In Valancourt’s rather extensive catalog, Bezill is listed in the “Vintage Thrills and Chills” section, which I suppose is as good a place as any for such an unclassifiable book as this one. Dating from 1962 as it does, however, the novel really isn’t all that vintage – it is one of the most recent books in that particular section – and to be quite honest, really doesn’t have anything to boast in the nature of thrills and chills, either. On this edition’s back cover, Bezill is also said to be a “Gothic fantasy”; is that descriptor closer to the mark? Well, let’s take a look. The book does, I suppose, contain some Gothic elements, but they are decidedly minimal, and limited to the classic setup of a tutor arriving at a mysterious household, a locked tower, and a woman confined in an insane asylum. As for the fantasy elements, other than the fictitious town of Windwood, nothing is to be found in Symonds’ book that could not be encountered in everyday life. Still, the book is decidedly weird, and it is the gradual accretion of strange details that makes the novel feel like such a bizarre experience.
Take, for instance, the odd names of the main characters, and throw in Mr. Skrymsher and Mr. Fulalove (two neighbors of Bezill Tower) in addition. Stir in the hunting mania of Mrs. Shakeshaft, and the talk of medicinal whipping (!) from Gayfere. Blend with a screech owl that is said to be a harbinger of death, and toss with one of the characters committing suicide, his/her body (I’m trying to be coy here) later found in a lovely swan pond. Add the borderline surrealistic experiences of Pellerin and Herbert at those Lisbon bordellos (including an unlikely encounter with Chauncy, of all people, at one of them). And, oh … throw in the strangeness of Pellerin falling in love with his pupil’s mother, despite all the negative things that he thinks about her, and despite the fact that he feels Gladys would make the perfect wife for him. And more … so much more. To be fair, with just a few minor changes – the deletion of a reference to television, and the subtraction of the given year 1952, when Herbert is said to have turned 4 – Bezill could easily have been presented as a period piece, and thus more convincing as a genuine Gothic. What we have here, rather, is something of an oddball modern story … “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Actually, more than anything else, the book’s main thrust (or perhaps I should instead say “concern”?) is good old-fashioned sex … a major driver for all the participants here. Thus, Pellerin is both attracted to and repelled by both Gladys and by Alice Shakeshaft, as well as turned on by Beatrice. Chauncy had been given the sack because of his, uh, activities in the sack, while Beatrice herself is hiding her own sex-related secret. Young Herbert ultimately reveals to his tutor his past fumbling attempts with the opposite sex, while Gayfere beseeches Pellerin to ask Gladys’ father, an herbalist, for a concoction that might be deemed a 1962 substitute for … let’s say Viagra. And then there’s the apparently sexless Mrs. Shakeshaft, whose icy exterior conceals a big ol’ mess in her past. So yes, it is not only Herbert whose sexual problems this novel has as its focus. While reading Bezill, you might wonder to yourself what the point of the book is; what is Symonds getting at, anyway, besides the atmospheric strangeness? Fortunately, the novel does come together in a very big way toward its very end, when Pellerin finally manages to enter that locked tower and discover the answers to some of the household’s puzzles. Alice’s being “as cold as an ice lolly” is finally understood, and the revelations in this section do go far in justifying much of the apparent pointlessness that had come before.
If I haven’t made it sufficiently clear, I did rather like Bezill. It’s different, certainly unusual, and kept me consistently wondering where it was going next. At a mere 146 pages, the novel is assuredly concise, and its short chapters compel the reader to go on, gobbling down each one in turn like a bonbon. Pellerin is a wholly likeable chap, although he seems a tad too mature and worldly wise for someone who is only 23, and Herbert is a sweet kid who we ultimately come to care for a lot. The farewell between the two at the novel’s tail end is a little sad and touching, as well. Symonds employs a very simple style of writing here – one can detect the hand of the children’s author – which makes it all the more striking when the subjects of sex and suicide crop up. His book is also casually cultivated, with numerous references to famous writers (Andre Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Douglas, Sophie von La Roche, Walter Pater, John Ruskin) and painters (George Morland, Richard Parkes Bonington, John Constable, Eugene Delacroix). It really is something of a sui generis affair, and those readers who go in expecting a straightforward Gothic thriller will surely be surprised (as was I) or disappointed (which, fortunately, I was not).
So call it what you will: a Gothic fantasy, a vintage chiller, a mood piece, a character study, or simply a modern-day English drama. Despite its brevity precluding any of its characters being presented with anything approaching great depth, the book does succeed in what it sets out to do, and its unusual aura persists with the reader for days after the final page is turned. It was not what I was expecting, but I don’t regret having read it. I see now that John Symonds has written some other interesting-sounding novels; for example, Light Over Water (1963), which deals with the occult, as well as a fantasy from 1967 entitled The Stuffed Dog. I would love to have a chance to purchase these items, and it is for such obscure and heretofore out-of-print works such as these that enterprising publishers such as Valancourt Books are so invaluable today…