Dark Sanctuary by H.B. Gregory
A very happy day it was for me – but a very unfortunate day for my bank account – when I first discovered the website for Ramble House books. Specializing in impossibly obscure sci-fi, horror, mystery and “weird menace” titles from the first half of the 20th century, the publisher has an overwhelming catalog of reasonably priced volumes that will surely make any fan of those genres salivate; books, for the most part, that are available nowhere else. I have already written here of Greye La Spina’s wonderful horror novel Invaders From the Dark (1925), only available from Ramble House, and now would like to tell you of a book that I recently read from the company’s Dancing Tuatara Press imprint that is even more of a rarity. The book in question this time is H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary, which comes preceded by great word of mouth, from those few who have experienced it.
The book has a short but interesting printing history. It was originally released as a hardcover in 1940 by the British publisher Rider & Co., which mainly dealt with books of metaphysics and spiritual matters but which also published some like-minded fiction. The print run was apparently limited to only 400 copies, most of which were destroyed in a warehouse during the London Blitz. The book sank into immediate obscurity for 43 years, until the renowned editor/author Karl Edward Wagner included it in his now-famous list of The 13 Best Supernatural Horror Books. This would lead to the novel’s resurrection in 2001 by Midnight House books, in a print run of fewer than 500 copies, which almost instantly sold out. But fortunately, thanks to Ramble House, this once impossible-to-find horror novel is now a snap to obtain. The company’s 2012 edition not only features two highly informative introductions, by Ramble House’s late mainman John Pelan and by D.H. Olson, but also, surprisingly, an interview that Pelan conducted with Gregory himself in 2005, when the author was 92 … not to mention some beautiful cover art by Gavin O’Keefe, who seems to have provided the artwork for hundreds of other Ramble House books, as well! I would say, thus, that this is the edition of Dark Sanctuary that you want to get – the definitive edition – if it weren’t the only one that you’re likely to find at a reasonable price. (And incidentally, I might add that I just saw an online bookseller offering that Rider & Co. first edition, with dust jacket, for over $6,000! That’s how scarce the book once was.)
As for Gregory himself, he was born Harry Beare Gregory in Derby, England, in 1912. Dark Sanctuary is his only novel of any kind, although in his interview he reveals that he also wrote five sci-fi short stories for young adults in the 1950s. A man of a deeply devout, Anglo-Catholic bent, Gregory’s faith deeply imbues his only novel; a good old-fashioned tale of good (namely, the God of the Bible and His ministers) vs. evil (as in Satan and his acolytes and the forces of Outer Chaos). The author would ultimately pass away in 2007, at the age of 94.
Gregory’s book has as its unique setting the ancient abbey of Kestrel, which itself sits atop the small (fictitious) isle of Kestrel, three miles of Cornwall’s north coast. Around 400 years before the main action begins, King Henry VIII had given the abbey to one Sir Anthony Lovel, who had proceeded to evict and/or slay the monks who were then in possession. The head abbot had then placed a curse on Sir Anthony and all his future descendants, which curse still seems to be in perfectly good operational order as Gregory’s book begins. Thus, we see the current owner of Kestrel, another Sir Anthony, screaming in delirium after having witnessed some kind of monstrosity in the caverns beneath the edifice’s basement crypt. His son, the worthless playboy Tony Lovell (as the surname is spelled today), is called to his father’s bedside from London, and Tony soon wires to his friend, journalist John Hamilton, to send a worthy psychotherapist down at once. But what a practitioner Hamilton chooses at random for the job! Thus, Dr. Nicholas Gaunt is soon at Kestrel on the case, and Lovell, Sr. seems to make a miraculous recovery … only to succumb to a chance accident shortly after.
As the book proceeds, the handsome but sinister Gaunt sends for his colleague, the immensely fat and toadlike Simon Vaughan, to assist him and Tony in expelling the Kestrel curse once and for all. Kestrel, we learn, was once a section of the legendary Lyonesse, and home to the wizard Merlin himself, who had succeeded in rending the veil to the Outer Chaos and entrapping a monstrosity of pure evil in the underground caverns. We also soon learn that Gaunt, far from being a kindhearted doctor, is in actuality a practicing Satanist; that Vaughan, despite his middle-aged looks, is a century-old defrocked priest, and Gaunt’s underling; and that the two, rather than eliminating the horror, plan to release it into the world, in the name of their lord, Satan. Young Tony proves to be easily duped, and is even worked on to the point where he becomes a willing initiate in the evildoers’ cult. When Hamilton makes a chance visit to the island, he is startled by the change in his old friend, and decides to spend some time on the Cornish coast three miles across the water, in a little fishing village called Pentock. There, he befriends the local, elderly rector, Michael Bennett, and begins to fall in love with the rector’s niece, Valerie. And as events proceed toward a culmination, and a red, sulfurous fog enshrouds Kestrel and the surrounding sea, blocking it from approach, Hamilton and his two new friends realize that they must do something – anything – to avert an almost literal hell on Earth…
In his introduction to the 2001 edition, reprinted in this Ramble House release, D. H. Olson tells us that “Dark Sanctuary is a very Christian novel,” and that statement was borne out by Gregory himself, who said, in his interview several years later, “As a practicing Anglo-Catholic I hope [the book] will strike a blow for Christianity in these faithless days.” What makes the book so very Christian? Well, putting aside the fact that Father Bennett, absolutely secure in his faith, is the coolest and most levelheaded amongst our heroes, there is also the fact that prayers to the Almighty do seem to have a marked effect here (despite Jim Morrison once telling us that “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer”). Several religious services are lovingly depicted by the author, and the mere spectacle of the Eucharist is enough to bring Hamilton and even, to a degree, Tony back into the fold. The book even manages to work in a literal deus ex machina into its story line, although the sentence “Then God came” might make the disbelievers chuckle out loud. And yet, if one can buy into the notion of forces of evil and Outer Chaos, why not the warriors of Heaven, as well?
But I don’t wish to give you the wrong idea here. Despite its overt Christian elements, Dark Sanctuary, as its title suggests, is very much a horror novel; a melding of Lovecraftian elements (although the cosmic horror here is very much on full display, not merely suggested as in so many of H. P.’s works) with a touch of Dennis Wheatley (particularly his 1934 classic The Devil Rides Out, which itself featured a story with the friends of a young Englishman attempting to rescue him from a Satanic cult). The book features any number of smashing and scarifying sequences, including Tony, Gaunt and Vaughan’s first sighting of the monstrosity, deep beneath the abbey crypts; Tony’s initiation into the Devil-worshipping cult, at Gaunt’s home in Hampstead; the harrowing ordeal that Hamilton and Valerie go through when, after being trapped in a storm in their sailboat, they manage to wash up on Kestrel isle; the absolutely nerve-racking sequence in which Gaunt uses his power of mind control to compel Valerie into the monster’s pit; the Black Mass ceremony that Tony participates in with Gaunt and Vaughan, during which the Eucharist wafer is stabbed by Tony and begins to drip blood; the highly atmospheric sequence when that mephitic and hellacious fog blankets the entire area; and the mind-boggling denouement, during which our heroes, paralyzed by Gaunt’s magic, are forced to watch as the necromancer attempts to not only set the monstrosity loose on the world, but rend the veil to the Outer Chaos and allow all its fellow monstrosities entrance! And speaking of which, this book’s monster really is a doozy! As Gaunt puts it, it is ”…the most tremendous evil force this world has ever known … a monstrosity of the Outer Darkness, an intruder from the chaos which exists behind the Veil of dimensional matter…”
Adding further horror to the conceit is the fact that all of Gaunt’s magics are more than highly effective. (Picture the man as a handsome, suave but supremely evil Dr. Strange.) Thus, not only can Gaunt compel others to do his will, but, with the use of his crystal globe, he can communicate with others from afar, send another person’s Ka (or spirit double) off on dastardly missions, and show images from another person’s mind. With his hazel-staffed, iron-pronged “blasting-rod,” he can shoot bolts of lightninglike power. And Simon, too, who is well over 100 yet looks only half that, proves no slouch in the necromancy field himself, his cabalistic diagrams on the crypt floor setting up an impenetrable force field of sorts. Truly, this is a book of frightening and startling marvels. No wonder Wagner was induced to include it in his famous list of top supernatural horrors!
For the rest of it, Dark Sanctuary features some wonderfully described locales, with Pentock, Kestrel and the entire Cornish north coast being convincingly set forth. The book’s six main characters are likewise realistically fleshed out (Gregory had a very nice way with natural-sounding dialogue), and Gaunt and Simon make for wonderful and hissable villains. The book is exciting, gripping, suspenseful, occasionally nightmarish, and builds steadily to its bravura climax. What a film it could possibly make! To be honest, this reader found Dark Sanctuary to be fairly unputdownable; an absolutely splendid horror novel that deserves to be better known. I can’t imagine any fan of well-written shudders not loving this delicious supernatural tale.
And yet, having said that, I must concede that Gregory does make a trio of mistakes during the course of his work. To begin with, he mentions that Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries began in 1532, whereas in actuality it was 1536. He tells us that James Lovel was the son of the abbey’s original owner, Sir Anthony, back in the 16th century, but later tells us that James was his nephew. Huh? And he gives the wrong title of a Swinburne poem that is quoted; it should be Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine,” not “Before a Crucifix.” But that’s pretty much it. Dark Sanctuary is otherwise a wonderfully solid reading experience, and it is to be regretted that this novel was Gregory’s only foray into the realm of horror. I’d surely have been ready for more. As it is, we should all be thankful for the miracle that allowed Karl Edward Wagner to find one of the book’s scarce copies to begin with, and then alert the world to its existence … as well as to Ramble House for making it widely available today. The publisher has several other items from the Wagner list, as well as from Wagner’s two other highly quoted lists (The 13 Best Sci-Fi Horror Books and The 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Books), and I hope to be getting into some of them – as well as some other horrific Ramble House obscurities – in the months ahead. Stay tuned…