Echo of a Curse by R.R. Ryan
In several of my earlier musings here on FanLit, I made reference to the list that editor/author Karl Edward Wagner released in the pages of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine back in the summer of ’83; the so-called Wagner 39 List. This overview of KEW’s favorite horror novels, and those that he felt were most in need of being brought to the public’s attention, was divided into three categories: The 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels, The 13 Best Science-Fiction Horror Novels, and The 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels. But of all the author names on those lists, both famous (Mary Shelley, Abraham Merritt, John Wyndham, Robert Bloch) and impossibly obscure, only one managed the hat trick of being represented in all three of those categories, and that author is R.R. Ryan, whose Echo of a Curse was included in the first list, Freak Museum in the second, and The Subjugated Beast in the third. This newcomer to all things R.R. Ryan opted to begin with Echo of a Curse, supposedly one of the author’s finest works, and I am so glad I did!
Echo of a Curse was initially released in 1939 as a hardcover volume by the British publisher Herbert Jenkins, which rightfully proclaimed, on the book’s dust jacket, that this was a “gruesomely fascinating novel.” The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 63 years, until Midnight House books, spurred on by the Wagner 39 List, reissued it in 2002. After going OOPs for another 12 years, the novel was resurrected again by the fine folks at Ramble House in 2014, who have rendered this once-impossible-to-find masterwork a breeze to purchase today. As for Ryan, for many decades, no absolutely definitive information was available about the author or his/her life, and reading the conflicting theories online really might be enough to induce a full-blown migraine. Apparently, for many years, Ryan was believed to have been the pen name of the English playwright and theater manager Evelyn Grosvenor Bradley (1882 – 1950), who many falsely assumed to be a woman. But as John Pelan and D. H. Olson reveal in this Ramble House edition’s fascinating intro, Ryan was in actuality Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan, the playwright’s daughter, who, it is further believed, wrote the first four of the seven R.R. Ryan novels with her father’s assistance. In his introduction to another Ryan novel, Pelan confirms that this fact was later substantiated by Bradley-Ryan’s son, so that would seem to be that. Complicating matters for literary scholars over the years is the fact that Bradley-Ryan also seems to have written some other novels under the pen names Noel Despard and Cameron Carr, and, after the last R.R. Ryan novel in 1940, several others under the name Kay Seaton. But it would appear that the seven macabre Ryan titles are the ones for which she is best remembered today, and largely thanks to Karl Edward Wagner.
Okay, as to Echo of a Curse itself, with some slight and unavoidable spoilers: The book introduces the reader to Terry Cliffe and Mary Rodney, who had been next-door neighbors and best friends since childhood. Terry had been in love with Mary for many years as Ryan’s story begins, although Mary is happy to remain just friends. (Sound familiar, guys?) In the WW1 trenches, Terry chances to meet a handsome, blue-eyed, curly-haired fellow Englishman named Vincent “Vin” Border, who, despite his Adonis-like looks, is a holy terror on the battlefield, reveling in the carnage and atrocities. Vin comes very close to frightening Terry, his superior officer, especially when Border tries to kill him in a drunken fit, and when Terry sees him dipping his hand into the bloody remains of a slain soldier. Still, Terry does bring Vin home with him while on leave in England, and Border and Mary, to Terry’s chagrin, immediately fall in lust and later marry. But after the Armistice, we see that the Borders’ marriage is hardly a happy one. Vin has lied about his financial affairs to Mary, and is actually destitute. Worse, he is prone to drunken bursts of rage, during which he physically abuses his defenseless spouse. Terry believes Vin to be a madman, a suspicion that is only strengthened when a local circus freak, THE INEXPLICABLE (always represented by Ryan in capital letters), escapes from captivity and begins to murder the local populace … a creature that Vin proclaims to be his father! During the night of a titanic storm, after Vin and his now-pregnant wife have another terrible knockabout row, Mary lifts her arms to the heavens and places a curse upon her unborn child, after which THE INEXPLICABLE enters their room and places its hand upon Mary’s womb! Vin, in full expectation that their child will now be born a freak itself, arranges with an unethical nurse to have that child replaced with a normal one immediately after its delivery, and, during another night of violent storm, Mary does indeed give birth to a monstrosity … as well as a beautiful, normal little girl, Faith. The monster child is given to the nurse’s gypsy father to be displayed in another freak show, while a normal little boy, Don, is substituted in its place.
In the second part of Ryan’s jaw-dropping book, we jump forward 10 years. Vin has significantly amended his savage ways and is wholly devoted to his daughter Faith. He and Mary are barely on speaking terms, while Terry, still hopelessly devoted to Mary, has moved in with them so as to better look after his old friend. All seems well, until Vin notices, in the morning paper, that a sideshow freak in a small town in Austria has escaped and killed its handler. Meanwhile, a very strange man, one Mr. Govina, has answered Mary’s ad looking for a lodger. Mr. Govina had recently been injured in a fire and thus wears dark sunglasses and a drapery covering his face. But, as Don reports to Terry one evening, he had accidentally seen Mr. Govina in the hallway without his mask, and had seen Govina’s glowing eyes, and fangs, and his face like a wolf’s…
Now, I realize that the above capsule description might make it appear as if the central objects of horror in Ryan’s book are of the ho-hum, mundane variety, but trust Karl Edward Wagner; they’re not! Ryan’s book earns its supernatural credentials by dint of the fact that its central monstrosity has qualities of both the vampire (supposed immortality; nonreflectiveness in mirrors; a propensity to lay at night in rat-infested cellars; the ability to use hypnosis to bewilder its victims) and the werewolf (a fanged and furry face; great viciousness and speed; a tendency to tear its victims to shreds). Described as being a combination of man, wolf and ape, THE INEXPLICABLE really does make for a terrific supernatural creation; it is a monster unlike any you may have previously encountered. Adding further supernatural elements to the book are the stories told about Vin’s father, who “believed in vampires, [and] had a religion founded upon the undead,” and the Black Commune that Vin undergoes to abet his abilities. But there are many other horrors besides the supernatural variety in Ryan’s stunning book. There’s also the horror of the WW1 trenches, and the numerous scenes of domestic violence in the Border household; the first instance of the latter, in which the drunken Vin beats his wife, tears her nightdress off, thrusts a pin into her shoulder, and throws her down the porch steps, is quite shocking, indeed! The book also features the horror of animal abuse, when Vin gives his wife a freshly mutilated puppy for her birthday, as well as the horrors of patricide, filicide, and attempted matricide. And Ryan gives the reader at least five scenes that should please any jaded horror fan: Faith’s birth and the substitution of Don; Vin’s Black Commune; a savage attack by the monster on Terry by night; Govina’s conversation with Faith; and, most especially, the extended sequence in which THE INEXPLICABLE stalks the neighborhood, Vin and Mary clash savagely, a storm rages, Mary curses her child, and the monstrosity arrives. This last is a tour de force of both horror and suspense that will surely leave most readers gaping.
For the rest of it, Echo of a Curse is an exceptionally well-written horror novel, both stylish and surprisingly modern. This does not feel like a book written and set in the 1930s. Ryan is guilty of a few ungrammatical bits here and there (such as when she writes “…nothing is more foolish than to try and convince others of their folly,” instead of “try to convince”), and seemingly revels in the use of 10-cent words on occasion (thus, “dephlogistication” and “antelucan” in the same couple of paragraphs), but is at the same time capable of a lovely turn of phrase (such as when she describes Mary’s servant girl Ruth as being “flushed, lovely, like a truant petal that had yielded to a summer breeze”). Still, Ryan’s book is ingeniously plotted, features some truly fascinating backstories, is genuinely nerve racking in segments, and often, as mentioned, shocking. Terry, Mary and Vin make for interesting lead characters, and the novel’s lesser characters are also finely drawn. The book is relentlessly brutal and grim – so grim, indeed, that there is no way to predict which characters will survive – but yet does have an occasional glint of humor, such as when Vin tells Terry about how the neighborhood’s fill-in doctor is becoming senile: “Locum’s loco”! And speaking of Terry, readers will surely marvel over the depth of platonic love that the man holds for his old friend Mary, spending decades of his life watching out for her. It is quite touching, really, and we sincerely do hope that Ryan will vouchsafe a happy ending for the two. Does that indeed happen? You won’t hear from me; I’ve probably already revealed too much.
Echo of a Curse would have made for a terrific movie back in the 1940s, if only the restrictive Production Codes back when hadn’t automatically rendered it unfilmable. A pity. Still, it remains ripe material for a smashing big-screen treatment today, if handled correctly. Admittedly, several details in the book do go unexplained, but that only adds to the novel’s mysteriousness. Somehow, it all works, and Ryan pulls all the outrageous and grisly elements together neatly. Readers should be prepared for a bit of the ol’ Brit slang before venturing in here (“Golly, I’ve wind-up”; “This is a topping home”; “I’m not talking wet”), but that’s hardly a reason to be put off from reading this terrific exercise in supernatural horror. As Karl Edward Wagner wrote back when, “Undeservedly forgotten, Ms. Ryan was the best of the British thriller writers” … a seemingly hyperbolic statement, until one reads what is deemed one of her finest works. As Mr. Govina himself puts it, this is “a very long and very strange story”; as Mary later reflects, “In all the books she had read, in all the films she had witnessed, [she] had seen nothing so appalling as the raw truth obtaining in [her] house…”
Readers turning over the final page of this, Ryan’s sixth, novel will surely come away with a desire to read her others, those being The Right to Kill (1936, and, according to Pelan, the least of the author’s works), Death of a Sadist (1937), Devil’s Shelter (1937), The Subjugated Beast (1938), Freak Museum (1938), and No Escape (1940, and which Pelan deems Ryan’s other great work). Happily, all those other Ryan titles, with the exception of The Right to Kill, are also available from Ramble House. Trust me, Echo of a Curse will only leave you wanting to read more. As Pelan says of it in his introduction, it is “arguably Ryan’s masterpiece.” As D. H. Olson opines in that same intro, it is a work “so essentially flawless as to be considered a true classic.” And as to Olson’s comment, this reader could not agree more…