Possessed by G. Firth Scott
In my recent review of Elliott O’Donnell’s 1912 novel of the supernatural, The Sorcery Club, I mentioned that the book had been initially released by the British publisher William Rider & Son, which, after taking over the occult publisher Phillip Wellby in 1908, proceeded to come out with some two dozen outre works from 1910 – 1924. In 1911, the firm would release Bram Stoker’s classic (and, for me, borderline unreadable) The Lair of the White Worm, and in 1912 would come out with no fewer than eight scarifying volumes, including a reprint of Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. Now, I would like to share some thoughts with you concerning another of those 1912 releases, namely G. Firth Scott’s Possessed.
Possessed, I feel confident in saying, is a book that you have likely not heard of before, and for good reason. After its 1912 release, and a subsequent reprinting by Rider in 1919, the novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for over a century, until the fine folks at Ramble House thankfully revived it in 2020. Thus, unless you want to spend a fantastic sum for one of those very scarce Rider antiques, Ramble House is your only recourse here. Happily, though, this recent edition is a beautiful one, featuring a very informative introduction from the Australian-based Ramble House cover artist Gavin O’Keefe, as well as a complete bibliography of G. Firth Scott, and photos of the original editions and contemporary reviews. It is a very fine addition to this enterprising publisher’s catalog, and fortunately (for the most part) free of the typos that have plagued so many of its other volumes.
Before proceeding, a brief word on G. Firth Scott himself. George Henry Firth Scott was born in Golspie, in northern Scotland, in 1862, and was thus already 50 when Possessed, his fifth novel out of six, was released. Scott moved to Australia in his early 20s, became a journalist, married, and raised a family, before returning to England around 1895. His career as a novelist began two years later, with the release of 1897’s Track of Midnight, although he is perhaps best remembered today for his sophomore novel, the lost-world affair titled The Last Lemurian (1898). Ultimately, besides those six novels, Scott would release a volume of short stories as well as six books of nonfiction, on subjects ranging from Australian history to Arctic exploration, before passing away in 1935, at the age of 72.
Now, as to Possessed itself: The novel introduces the reader to one Alvo Whetstone, a big burly man with a tremendous appetite for food and drink, who happens to be one of the foremost business magnates and financial geniuses in all of London. But as Scott’s book begins, Whetstone has just suffered two major setbacks. The beautiful Violet Temple, the daughter of one of his business associates who Whetstone had once saved from ruin, has just spurned his offer of marriage for the second time, infuriating the businessman and causing him to utter the words “Living or dead, I will make you mine. Not even the grave shall cheat me of my triumph. Death shall not keep you from me, nor me from you.” And then, the very next day, while giving a speech in front of the directors of the Sea Fronts mining company, Whetstone learns that the company is in grave financial peril, and that his own personal fortune has just been largely wiped out, causing the husky tycoon to swallow cyanide and drop dead on the spot, a hideous downward grimace on his beefy face!
Meanwhile, at another financially imperiled concern, the Fortunatas Assurance Company, skinny, redheaded, pious, abstemious simpleton Charles Mordant, a lowly clerk, passes out suddenly, and when he awakens, half of his mouth sports that same death’s rictus (as depicted on O’Keefe’s cover), and his personality undergoes a sudden radical change as well. No longer repelled at the thought of gambling and drinking, the former milquetoast enters a saloon for the first time in his life and makes a tidy bundle playing snooker, later scandalizing his landlady, Mrs. Stummins, by coming home drunk. Charles’ sweet and innocent girlfriend, Minnie, however, is surprisingly pleased with the change, now that the formerly timid boy has suddenly turned rather amorous. But Charles’ austere and otherworldly priest, Father Bosking, maintains that Charles has become possessed by a devil who must needs be cast out! The lad, far from being the incompetent low-level clerk that he used to be, evinces signs of being just as much of a financial wizard as Whetstone had been. He rescues Fortunatas from the brink of disaster and amasses a fortune for himself in the process, and although he has many gaps in his memory, in nonetheless fairly content. And then one day, he sees Violet Temple passing by in a carriage…
Thus, in the second section of Scott’s novel, Mordant, seemingly possessed by the spirit of Alvo Whetstone, sets forth to make good on his last words to Violet. When the young beauty’s father finds himself in financial straits again, Mordant promises to bail him out … provided that he will compel his daughter to marry him. Charles even goes so far as to unceremoniously ditch poor Minnie, thereby casting her into disgrace. Meanwhile, Dr. Herbert Swabie, who had initially treated young Mordant after his swoon, and who is very much in love with Violet himself, begins to observe the young man as an interesting case study. Disdaining the priest’s assertion that Mordant is possessed, as well as the fact that Mordant seems to have knowledge of things that only Whetstone himself could have known, he rather decides that the lad is merely suffering from an “imitative mania.” But even his cherished tenets of scientific materialism will be sorely tried by the events that soon follow…
Readers who experience Possessed will most likely come away thinking how remarkable it is that such a finely crafted book could have been essentially unavailable for over 100 years. Scott’s novel is exquisitely well written, with a fine ear for well-rendered dialogue and loads of convincing detail, especially as regards those financial messes. His novel is filled with all manner of clever touches, such as Mordant’s mouth hanging down on one side, and the sight of the former teetotaler gulping down Curacao liqueur by the wineglass. The book is not especially scary but does feature any number of wonderfully intense and wholly gripping sequences. (“It is full of dramatic situations and is very well told. I consider it the best occult novel I have read for a long while,” said Australian occult novelist Rosa Campbell Praed at the time.) Among those sequences: Mordant’s initial possession, as an icy draught is felt in his vicinity; Charles’ victory at snooker, and his subsequent demand for real coffee and a hearty breakfast the next morning, to his landlady’s astonishment; the two attempts that Bosking makes to exorcise the beset lad; the spectacle of Charles being struck on the head and briefly returning to normal, while telling Swabie that he’s been ”pushed in a corner like”; the scene in which Mordant, after being invited to a fancy dinner at the Temples’ home, and instead of making a fool of himself there, as would be expected, manages to shine, and impress all; and, of course, the scenes in which Mordant, speaking with Whetstone’s voice and employing his every mannerism, brutally extorts, pressures and compels both Temple and Violet to allow a marriage to go forward. Dramatic situations, to be sure!
Curiously enough, though supposedly a novel dealing with the occult, originally released by a company that primarily published supernatural fiction, Scott here tries to have it both ways, and manages to achieve that tricky balancing act between the decidedly bizarre and the explainable, rationalized mundane. Though Dr. Swabie does his best to explain away all the strange manifestations evinced by Mordant as epilepsy leading to imitative mania, and all the things experienced by Charles’ contacts as mere nerves, the reader – as well as Rev. Bosking and Mrs. Stummins – knows better. And really, how else to explain that icy cold in the room before Mordant’s takeover; Mordant’s slim body that, after his initial swoon, becomes too heavy to carry; the “lavender grey tint” that Violet sees around Mordant’s body, as the ghostly form of Whetstone emerges; the fact that Swabie seems to hear Violet’s cries for help from many miles away; the manifold powers that Bosking possesses; and Alvo’s final written message, penned while Mordant lies drugged and unconscious? No. Despite all the excuses that Swabie insists on propounding, the balance here tilts most decidedly to the side of the supernatural, for which this reader, at least, was grateful.
For the rest of it, Possessed features a raft of interesting and well-drawn secondary characters (Bosking, Mrs. Stummins, the venal and mercenary Mr. Temple, the lovely Minnie). Bosking is especially fascinating; a man with a straggling beard and a wild gleam in his eyes whom the reader is initially led to believe is a kook, but who is ultimately revealed to be the savviest of all the characters, especially when chastising Dr. Swabie’s vaunted materialism. And Whetstone himself – whether in his original beefy flesh or snarling out from Mordant’s puny form – makes for a marvelous villain, at once brilliant, cultured, and completely unprincipled. Had Possessed been adapted to the screen in the early 1940s, I could have easily envisioned him being portrayed (in the early sections, at least) by Laird Cregar. Scott’s novel also presents the reader with some interesting discussions regarding just what makes a person a person: the brain, or the something behind the brain. And it also offers up some cogent commentary on crass capitalism and the desire for Mammon, as personified by Mr. Temple’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter for money … as cravenly a display as any reader could hope to encounter.
I actually have very few complaints to lodge against G. Firth Scott’s very fine work here. Oh, sure, the fact that Swabie remains in denial about the possibility of a supernatural explanation for all the events he witnesses is a bit annoying, but can be chalked up as the stubbornness of modern science to admit of other realms and possibilities. More problematic for this reader was the surprise revelation regarding Charles and Minnie; a twist that comes completely out of left field, makes little sense in the light of what we had seen, and ultimately does nothing to further the story along, as things shake out. A definite misstep on the author’s part, I can’t help but feel. But other than these two quibbles, I was left very satisfied by Possessed; a most entertaining and yes, decidedly supernatural affair.
As a matter of fact, I so enjoyed my first G. Firth Scott experience that I now find myself wanting to read the author’s lost-race novel, The Last Lemurian. An unknown civilization living beneath the Australian Outback? An ages-old queen, pygmy subjects, and bunyips? Sounds like my kind of fare! Wish me luck as I endeavor to track a copy down…