Invaders From the Dark by Greye La Spina
In my review of the splendid collection entitled The Women of Weird Tales, which was released by Valancourt Books in 2020, I mentioned that I’d been very impressed with the five stories by Greye La Spina to be found therein, and was now interested in checking out the author’s classic novel of modern-day lycanthropy, Invaders From the Dark. Well, it took a little searching until I found a copy of said book for what I considered a decent price, but I am here now to tell you … mission accomplished, and to share some thoughts on what has turned out to be a fun and surprisingly grisly novel, indeed.
La Spina, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this unjustly neglected writer, was born Fanny Greye Bragg, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 1880. She would go on to pen over 100 short stories before her passing in 1969, around 20 of them appearing in Weird Tales magazine; of those 20, two of them, Invaders From the Dark and The Gargoyle, were serialized short novels. In the case of the former, it originally appeared in the April/May/June 1925 issues of “The Unique Magazine,” and was, unsurprisingly, a huge hit with Weird Tales readers. Seabury Quinn, the author who would place more stories in the magazine than any other writer, reportedly missed his subway stop, so engrossed was he in the tale. Another Weird Tales contributor, C. M. Eddy, Jr., was so enamored with it that he supposedly pressed for its release as a hardcover edition. Well, it took all of 35 years, but in 1960, Arkham House did finally rescue La Spina’s novel from oblivion, in a hardcover volume that today is a highly sought collectable. In 1966, the Paperback Library came out with its own edition, with the title, for some strange reason, changed to Shadow of Evil, and its front cover sporting that oft-used depiction of a frightened woman fleeing from a creepy-looking Victorian abode. (Perhaps you’re familiar with the type of cover I mean?) After this, La Spina’s novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for another 41 years, until the fine folks at Ramble House opted to add it to their already huge catalog, for a new generation to discover. And yes, it is the 2007 Ramble House edition that I was happy to finally lay my hands on. Invaders From the Dark did not mark the first time that La Spina had written a tale about werewolves. Indeed, her very first published story had been “The Wolf on the Steppes,” which appeared in the short-lived pulp magazine The Thrill Book in 1919. She would go on to write another tale of lycanthropy, the highly regarded piece called “The Devil’s Pool,” in 1936, and if her 1925 novel is any indication of quality, I would love to read both of those stories someday…
Invaders From the Dark, for the most part, consists of a manuscript written by an elderly woman named Sophie Delorme. In a most convincing introduction, La Spina tells her readers how the manuscript came to be delivered into her hands, after Delorme had contacted a magazine dealing in the supernatural (presumably Weird Tales itself) and asked to be put in touch with one of its writers who was well versed in the occult, as Greye apparently was. Immediately after Ms. Delorme had thrown La Spina her manuscript from an upper-floor window, she’d been yanked away, and she and her home were destroyed in an explosion. Before the publication of Delorme’s manuscript, La Spina tells us, any number of mysterious and destructive events had occurred, in an apparent attempt to ensure that its release to the public would never take place. The fact that Delorme’s story made it into print, it seems, is a providential blessing, as her story was written for the express purpose of warning the world about the evil forces dwelling in our midst.
Sophie, we learn, had moved from her Massachusetts home to NYC, to live with her adopted niece Portia, who had recently lost her husband. That husband, one Howard Differdale, had originally hired Portia to be his assistant in his studies of the occult, and had died during the faulty conducting of one of his arcane ceremonies. Now, Portia finds herself attracted to the handsome and kindly Owen Edwardes, a real estate man who lives nearby. But major-league trouble arrives in the form of the beautiful blonde Russian princess Irma Andreyevna Tchernova, who hires Owen to find her a suitable abode and who also seems to have a hankering for the young man. To Aunt Sophie’s bewilderment, Portia immediately becomes suspicious of the princess, who not only has an uncommonly long third finger, but who also loves foul-smelling marigolds, cannot eat sweets, orders massive quantities of red meat from the local butcher, has slanted eyebrows, has red spots in her eyes, walks rather slinkily, and keeps five gray wolves as pets. As time goes on, two policemen and one 12-year-old girl disappear from the neighborhood, after which, it is learned, the princess had cut back on her meat orders from the butcher! Finally, Portia tells her aunt of what she has long suspected: that the Russian princess, abetted by her hulking manservant Sergei and her mute and barefoot underling Agathya, is nothing less than a werewolf, capable of changing her shape at will! And, to make matters even worse, Portia has discovered, after doing a little surreptitious spying at the princess’ abode while in her “astral state,” that Irma will soon be turning Owen into a werewolf as well, to be her (literal) running mate. Can Portia, novice occultist as she is, possibly face off against this female monster to save her man’s soul from a truly horrendous fate?
Now, there are several factors that combine to make La Spina’s work here a fairly unusual experience. First, of course, is the fact that all three of the book’s main characters – the narrator, the heroine and the villainess – are women, and that the men who we see, such as Owen and those hapless cops, are all ineffectual, albeit well-meaning. Despite some tears on the part of Portia, and a fainting spell that comes upon Aunt Sophie, the women presented to us are the ones exhibiting all the strength and decisiveness. And then there is the matter of Princess Irma herself. Unlike the werewolves given to us in Guy Endore’s 1933 classic The Werewolf of Paris (Bertrand Caillet was a traditional werewolf who also preyed on livestock), Anthony Boucher’s famous short story of 1942, “The Compleat Werewolf” (Wolfe Wolf, a German-language professor, could change into a wolf at will but only did so in the service of good and for his country), and Jack Williamson’s 1948 novel Darker Than You Think (Will Barbee was actually a shapeshifter of a wholly different genus, Homo lycanthropus, who was also shown changing into a sabertooth and a boa constrictor), the Russian werewolf given to us here became the evil creature that she is by dint of a force of will alone. It is strongly suggested that her great faith in the dark powers that she had studied is the factor responsible for her seemingly miraculous abilities. Her current situation, thus, is no unfortunate accident of fate, as was Lawrence Talbot’s in the classic Universal film The Wolf Man (1941), but rather a deliberate act of volition, making her, in my eyes at least, an even nastier proposition than all those others. Plus, no mention is made here of a possible Achilles heel to this werewolf, such as a silver bullet; only the occult powers and the power of prayer, strangely enough, would seem to offer any protection from this (what the Russians call) “volkodlak.”
La Spina’s book is fast moving and tense, and offers up several finely done sequences. In the first, Sophie and Portia peek into the princess’ windows at night, and behold her cruel treatment of Agathya; in another, Sophie goes to a tea party at which the princess is in attendance. Then there is another nocturnal surveillance of Irma’s abode, after which our gals are chased home by some kind of natural or unnatural wolf; the wonderful scene in which Portia’s incorporeal, astral self spies on Irma and Owen, as the princess prepares her victim for his transformation; and the exciting – and wholly believable – culmination, as reported, via pantomime, by the mute Agathya. The ultimate fate of Aunt Sophie, as seen in that introduction, is nicely mysterious, too. Adding a sense of dislocation to the entire affair is the fact that although it supposedly transpires in NYC, the neighborhood names have been changed, and even though such real thoroughfares as Queens Boulevard and Bayside Avenue are name checked, they do not correspond to the streets that occur in actuality; nor is it possible to take a subway to the town of Lynbrook! As I mentioned up top, La Spina’s tale is pleasingly (although, usually, only suggestively) grisly. I just love when the princess says “I have the great blood-red orchid that seem so solid, so yielding, at once; like the pulsing flesh of a child’s heart.” So yes, Invaders From the Dark does indeed make for a fun, old-fashioned horror entertainment. Still, there are any number of drawbacks that prevent me from giving it a higher grade.
For one thing, Ms. La Spina, sad to say, makes any number of “continuity errors” in her tale. For example, we are told that Portia was hired by Mr. Differdale in June 1910, and are later told that she married him six months later, in January 1910. Say what? Early on, it is established that the Differdale home has only two floors, with the bedrooms and library on the upper level, and yet, repeatedly, the women go up to their bedrooms when they’re already on the second floor! The two Russian wolfhounds that are Portia’s pets are described as being white early on (a somewhat important plot point) but are then said to be gray 100 pages later. And when Sophie and Portia spy on Irma’s household through a window during that second reconnaissance mission, the princess’ back is said to be facing them. So how, then, could Aunt Sophie observe “her narrow eyes regarding [Owen] provocatively from under lowered lids”? These kinds of goofs can annoy an alert reader to distraction! Less objectionable to me were some instances of faulty grammar (“Her blue eyes were dazzlingly clear and looked at one uncompromisingly; there were mystery in their depths…”) and several wholly unnatural-sounding conversations. Still, we must recall that it is Aunt Sophie who is telling us this tale, and that she is hardly a professional writer. Not to mention the fact that it was really up to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright to spot all those goofs in the first place. Still, these are relatively minor matters in a book that is so eminently readable and such good fun. Yes, it would have been nice to have been given a little bit more background on Portia’s work and research, and a little more biographical info as regards the princess (such as why this Russian employs so many French words), just as it would have been nice if Fu Sing, Portia’s Chinese servant, weren’t such a caricature, but still, what we are given here is some fairly impressive work, indeed. As Aunt Sophie tells us at one point, “Oh, this is a wild tale! But then, it makes fair reading to pass an idle hour.” And now, this reader finds himself wanting to read still another novel written by a female author that features a female werewolf; namely, Clemence Housman’s 1896 classic The Were-Wolf. Wish me luck as I endeavor to track this one down…