Mad-Doctor Merciful by Collin Brooks science fiction book reviewsMad-Doctor Merciful by Collin Brooks

Mad-Doctor Merciful by Collin Brooks science fiction book reviewsOn three separate occasions over the past few months, I have been asked the question “Where do you find all those strange books that you read?” The answer from me has been the same for the past few years now: Armchair Fiction, Ramble House and, most recently, Valancourt Books, three publishers that specialize in reviving obscure, unusual and out-of-print sci-fi, horror, fantasy and mystery works for a new generation to appreciate. I have been on something of a tear with Ramble House lately, and would like to tell you now of the seventh book in a row that I have experienced from this remarkable firm. Typically, it is a novel that I probably would never have even heard of without Ramble House’s help; namely, Mad-Doctor Merciful, by Collin Brooks.

Mad-Doctor Merciful was originally released in 1932 as a hardcover by the British firm Hutchinson. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 83 years until Ramble House decided to resurrect it in 2015, thus making this fairly unknown work easily procurable for the modern-day audience. Featuring still another wonderfully informative introduction by RH main man John Pelan, as well as some more imaginative cover artwork by the Australia-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, the volume makes for another fine addition to this enterprising publisher’s ever-expanding catalog.

As for Collin Brooks himself, he was a completely unknown quantity for this reader before diving into the book in question, although I must confess that I am now an admirer. Brooks was born in Cumberland County, England, in 1893 and spent most of his career as a journalist, although he did find the time somehow to write around 50 books – mainly nonfiction. But, as Pelan mentions in his intro, Brooks also wrote a trilogy of books featuring a character named Raeburn Steel, who, I’m guessing from those book titles (Mr. X, The Body-Snatchers, and The Ghost Hunters), was a kind of supernatural detective. And as for the book in question, it most assuredly must be placed in the field of supernatural literature. Collin Brooks passed away in 1959, at the age of 65.

Now, as for Mad-Doctor Merciful itself, which Pelan mentions is widely deemed the author’s “masterpiece of shockers,” it is narrated by one Godfrey Leybourne, a middle-aged, single, successfully rising barrister living in London. Leybourne, it seems, had first encountered Dr. Peter Merciful when the latter was testifying as an expert witness on the subject of spirit possession at a case that the lawyer was prosecuting. The urbane doctor had subsequently surprised Godfrey by appearing at his flat and extending an invitation to spend his upcoming vacation at Merciful’s house. The doctor, it seemed, had desired Leybourne to act as a reliable witness during a unique and possibly dangerous experiment that he would soon be conducting. His curiosity piqued, Leybourne had agreed to go, and thus, a month later, he and his so-called “batman” Whitlow (a Cockney mate of his from his old naval days) were driven by Dr. Merciful up to his lonely abode on the marshy shores of Lancashire. It was an unusual home, to put it mildly, and Leybourne was startled to discover, on his second day there, that Merciful’s assistant during the upcoming experiment would be none other than the famed occult researcher Dr. Agnes Teuten, who had gone missing in Tibet and been presumed dead. And before long, the nature of the experiment at which Leybourne and Whitlow had been asked to witness and assist is made clear by the good doctors.

Merciful, it seems, had in his hospital/home a young woman named Kathleen Earl, the daughter of Kathleen Legard, who was the childhood sweetheart of Leybourne. The daughter had gone quite mad after witnessing the shocking decapitation and headshrinking of her mother in Tibet; a tragedy that Agnes Teuten was also present at. But Merciful claimed that it was no simple case of mental disturbance that afflicted Kathleen, but rather a case of possession by a malign spirit. His experiment, thus, boiled down to this rather complex scheme: Merciful proposed to trepan the brain and operate on the pineal gland of a young Frenchwoman, a prostitute/psychic named Marthe D’Avray. He also proposed to use drugs on a young Belgian nun named Mary Ferne. Using words of conjuring power known to them, Merciful and Teuten proposed to call the spirit of Kathleen Legard into the body of the Belgian sister, with Mary’s sweet soul transferred to the body of the French harlot. And meanwhile, Marthe’s own spirit would be temporarily (at least, hopefully and theoretically) cast adrift, to combat any adverse forces that might converge on the fray and “cajole from its tenancy the evil and inimical being which possessed the mind of Kathleen Earl.” Got all that? Yes, it was a rather confusing program that Dr. Merciful had in mind, one which Agnes had compared to a game of mental puss-in-the-corner. “What could possibly go wrong?,” the reader wonders. And perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is “Plenty!”

Mad-Doctor Merciful by Collin Brooks science fiction book reviewsMad-Doctor Merciful is a possibly sui generis hybrid of the medical thriller and supernatural horror novel; one that is hardly empty-headed but rather a book of theorizing and ideas. So even though the book is a cross between those two discrete and exciting literary genres, it is an endlessly talky affair … but at least the talk is always interesting. Actually, the book is replete with hugely fascinating conversations between Leybourne and Merciful, and Leybourne and Teuten, on such subjects as life after death, human consciousness, the spirit world, the human brain, telepathy, hauntings, music and, of course, the operations that Merciful intends to perform. Despite the outrageousness of the novel’s central conceit – the possibility of casting out a possessing spirit via drugs, brain surgery, pineal gland manipulation, and plain old-fashioned necromancy – Brooks somehow manages to make it all seem credible and convincing. And the operation on Marthe D’Avray, in which Merciful uses such instruments as a gouge forceps, periosteal rugine, necrosis forceps, dura mater scissors, circular saw, small tenaculum, and a Horsley’s flexible knife, is especially so, as is the good doctor’s step-by-step description of the trepanning process to the increasingly agitated Leybourne. If the book’s perplexing mélange of surgeries/treatments on a nun, prostitute, madwoman, and deceased mother, combined with the seances leading up to them and the use of ancient ritual at the master plan’s heart, strikes the potential reader as hopelessly confusing, please know that Drs. Merciful and Teuten’s concise explanations go very far in making things clear … well, somewhat clear, anyway.

Brooks, in between all the fascinating dialogue, does pepper his novel with some memorable set pieces. Among them: the séance that Merciful, Leybourne and Whitlow conduct, bringing to the fore a spirit from the beyond, while the table beneath their fingertips spins wildly; Leybourne seeing the spectral image of Agnes Teuten sitting on the beach, before learning that the woman does indeed possess the ability to send her spirit self afar; the second séance, at which the ectoplasmic form of Kathleen Legard forms about Marthe D’Avray; the grisly operation that Merciful performs on the Frenchwoman; the converging of the spirits about Kathleen Earl; and Merciful’s takeover by a particularly nasty elemental. Brooks’ novel is also filled with numerous oddball touches, such as the camera obscura-type of device that allows Merciful to spy on all the rooms in his domicile on a TV-like screen; the fact that Merciful and Teuten are able to communicate telepathically; Merciful’s abode being serviced by deaf and mute geisha girls; the notion that the land on which the doctor’s home sits had been underwater several hundred years earlier, and so is now more receptive to spirit attacks; the fact that Merciful and Teuten need to fast before the ultimate experiment, and remove all metallic objects from their persons; and the unusual cigarettes and beverages that the doctor offers to Leybourne, both of which are pleasingly stimulating and like nothing the barrister had ever sampled before.

For the rest of it, Mad-Doctor Merciful is never exactly scary but is surely creepy in parts – such as during those seances, and the book’s denouement – and always atmospheric. It is unfailingly intelligent, literate (with numerous Biblical allusions, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe and the English novelist/poet George Meredith), and masterfully well written; I had to chuckle when Leybourne describes himself as writing with “my amateurish pen.” And the book’s four main characters are all exceedingly well drawn: Leybourne, who asks precisely the questions that we the readers would have asked, and whose reactions are much like ours would have been; Merciful, who, despite the book’s title, is hardly a “mad doctor” at all, but rather a dedicated, brilliant medical practitioner, would-be humanitarian, and student of the occult; Agnes, the doctor’s female equal in every department; and Whitlow, the Cockney everyman. And it is thanks to Whitlow that the novel is given a very nice leavening of humor. The man is forever going off on what Leybourne calls “interminable purposeless reminiscences,” and veering off into tangential stories, all framed in his East End gibberish, which unfailingly cause Leybourne to respond with such comments as “What the devil are you talking about, Whitlow?” and “I wish to heavens you’d try and talk sense, Whitlow, instead of jabbering there like some character out of Dickens.” And the book features a wonderful little coda that surely could have paved the way for a sequel, had Brooks so wished. Readers will surely marvel that Mad-Doctor Merciful, as fine a novel as it is, was allowed to sink into oblivion for 83 years!

I actually have very few complaints to lodge concerning Collin Brooks’ very impressive piece of work here. Yes, it is occasionally confusing that Kathleen Legard and Kathleen Earl bear the same given name, and really, is that something that you’ve ever encountered before? A mother giving her own name to her daughter? And yes, Whitlow’s 100-year-old Cockney slang can be a bit much for the modern reader, especially one who doesn’t hail from England; you may have to head over to your Google machine for help in deciphering it, a tool that poor Godfrey Leybourne could not make use of himself back in 1932. Or perhaps you already know what a “matelow’s square-pusher” is? But really, that’s about it. It truly is a pity that Collin Brooks’ forays into the field of supernatural literature were so infrequent. The late John Pelan, in his 2014 introduction to this edition, mentioned that Ramble House hoped to publish those three Raeburn Steel novels sometime in 2016. Well, here we are, seven years later, and it still, unfortunately, hasn’t happened … yet. But I live in hope. As I suggested earlier, any reader of this very fine supernatural shocker will surely become an instant admirer of its author…

Originally published in 1932. Long considered a collectors’ item by various underground horror cults, this 1932 potboiler probes into the mysteries of life and death in ways other books of its time shied away from. It combines the otherworldly atmosphere of horror with the cold sharpness of a medical thriller. The author, Collin Brooks, was a journalist with many serious, dry books to his name and this, as described in the introduction by John Pelan, is his masterpiece of medical horror.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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