Once again, I am indebted to Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books for alerting me to the existence of a great read that I probably would never have run across without their assistance. In this case, the novel in question is Paul Bailey’s Deliver Me From Eva, which was chosen for inclusion in that volume by no less a figure than Forrest J. Ackerman — former editor of the beloved magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, renowned literary agent, and legendary collector of horror and sci-fi movie memorabilia — himself. The book, Ackerman tells us, was one that he first read upon its initial publication in 1946, but had never forgotten, and any reader of this absolutely flabbergasting thrill ride will surely understand why.
Paul Bailey, I should perhaps mention right here, is apparently the same author as Paul Dayton Bailey, who wrote many nonfiction books dealing with the Western U.S. and, in particular, the Church of Latter-Day Saints. (He is not to be confused with the British author Paul Bailey, who was born in 1937 and is still very much with us today.) Deliver Me From Eva would seem to be his only venture into the field of fiction. It was initially released as a $2 hardcover by the minor publishing firm Murray & Gee, its dustcover depicting a human head on a serving platter, with drops of blood descending from the book’s title; that $2 volume sells for something like $250 online today. The book did not see another edition for a full 65 years (the reason why Ackerman wrote, in 1988, “I hope some antiquarian bookseller can locate a copy for you…”), until Bruin Books came out with a beautifully art directed and reasonably priced reprint in 2011. Thus, this legendary wonder of a story can be easily purchased today. (I believe that the fine folks at Centipede Press have also since come out with a limited edition of this book.) An elegantly written novel whose punning title belies a rather shocking, lurid and at times completely over-the-top experience, Deliver Me From Eva, simply put, is a must-read for any fan of outré horror.
The novel is narrated by a young lawyer named Mark Allard, who, en route by train from L.A. to San Francisco, meets the ravishingly beautiful Eva Craner. The two decide to marry after just three days, despite the fact that Mark is already engaged to his partner’s daughter. After a week’s idyllic honeymoon in The City by the Bay — during which Mark is astonished to discover that his new bride is not only an accomplished pianist, but also something of an intellect in many subjects — the two return to Eva’s home near Pasadena, to introduce Mark to his new family. Eva’s father, Dr. Craner, lives in a walled-in compound, his home called The Cradle of Light. Eva’s separate residence, which she has somehow presciently fitted out to suit Mark to a T, is known as Thalamus (yes … it’s named after a region of the brain!). Dr. Craner, as it turns out, is something of a deformed grotesque, having been born with no ear holes or legs! At present, he is working on his pet project: the manual manipulation of the plates in the human skull to expand consciousness and mental abilities! And, as evidenced by Eva and her brother Osman — a handsome and muscular physical specimen in training to become a concert pianist — the doctor just might be on to something there.
The Cradle of Light also houses three of the doctor’s assistants: Castleman, a vaguely menacing manservant; Margot, who is also adept in the doctor’s science of skull plate manipulation; and Insa, a housemaid who’s more than a little mentally unhinged, the unfortunate result of one of the doctor’s failed procedures. Mark immediately senses the need to remove his new bride from this decidedly strange household, but unfortunately, that desire proves very difficult to carry out. Eva has no wish to leave whatsoever, being in the very middle of her mental training and “cycle,” while Dr. Craner soon decides that his new son-in-law just might be the perfect candidate for further skull-related experimentation … whether the young lawyer decides to cooperate or not…
Mixing in hypnotism, multiple decapitations, weird science, a deranged and deformed “mad scientist,” oddball assistants (and three of them!), incinerations, shootings, knifings, a doozy of an explosion, and communication with the dead, Deliver Me From Eva surely does make for one wild ride. It is the type of book that grows loopier and loopier as it proceeds, and every single weirdo character in The Cradle of Light ultimately has a secret revealed about him — or herself in rather startling fashion, or about their relationship with the others. No wonder that Mark later says, “I married, in addition to the most beautiful woman alive, enough damned riddles to stock a sick dream…” And, as regards this cast of wackadoodles, Bailey himself, in his dedication, tells us, “The author has never met anyone remotely suggestive of the characters in this book … and he truthfully hopes he never will”!
As a matter of fact, this is also the type of book with so many startling moments and marvelously grisly scenes that to discuss them would entail depriving any potential readers of the thrill of their discovery. But I will go so far as to reveal my single favorite scene in the book. It occurs roughly halfway through, when Mark passes out while trying to run away from Thalamus, and awakens to find himself strapped down on Dr. Craner’s operating table, the malevolent scientist leering down on him from his leathern pedestal. It is a genuinely frightening sequence, and again, the less said, the better.
Deliver Me From Eva, of course, would have made a sensational horror picture back in the late ‘40s, and the role of Dr. Craner would naturally have been tailor made for none other than Johnny Eck, the legless actor who played the role of the “Half Boy” in the classic 1932 film Freaks, and who remarkably lived to be 79 years old, passing away in 1991. Eck would have been pushing 40 in the late 1940s, and would have been an absolutely marvelous Dr. Craner, zipping around on his hands when not rolling about on his wheeled glider. Today, of course, with the wonder of modern computer FX, any actor could portray a legless man (just look at Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump, for example), and so a modern-day filmization of Bailey’s work is still not out of the question, I suppose.
Deliver Me From Eva is not a perfect work, but it sure is a gripping page-turner, and oh my goodness, is it ever fun! Yes, it would have been nice to have learned more about Craner’s processes, and Eva’s bizarre “cycle” — during which she lays in a deep slumber, later rising to walk the Thalamus grounds somnolently while she converses with the deceased — but what we are left with here is just enough to satisfy, while whetting our curiosity for more. Bailey, as mentioned, reveals himself to be quite an elegant writer, with a gift for well-handled conversational dialogue, and his Allard character makes for a sympathetic and wholly credible leading man. (I’m picturing someone like Franchot Tone or Joel McCrea as Allard, and perhaps Evelyn Ankers or Hillary Brooke as the blonde Eva, in my 1948 fantasy film, opposite Johnny Eck!)
To read this sole novel by Paul Bailey is to regret deeply his decision to never again try his skill in the arena of fantastic fiction, as the man quite obviously had a decided knack for bizarre horror fare. Writing in that Newman & Jones volume, Ackerman tells us that “perhaps it’s time for a book publisher to bring out a new edition…” Well, thanks to the folks at Bruin, that edition is here, and I urge you to take advantage of it. Trust me, you will not read a more jaw-dropping book this year. More than highly recommended!