The Devil of Pei-Ling by Herbert Asbury
In 2002, Martin Scorsese brought to the big screen his 18th film as a director, Gangs of New York. The picture was based on a nonfiction book by one Herbert Asbury, namely The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld, but the screenwriters played so loosely with the facts in Asbury’s book that the film was famously Oscar nominated for a Best Original Screenplay award, rather than a Best Adapted Screenplay award, as might have been expected. For many people – including myself – this was the first time that they had heard of Herbert Asbury, as well as his 1927 work. But the same year that the author released this now-famous true-crime expose, he also came out with a book of a wholly different sort … a supernatural thriller, no less! And it is that novel, entitled The Devil of Pei-Ling, that I have just experienced and would like to tell you about now.
The Devil of Pei-Ling was released as a $2 hardcover by the U.S. publisher Macy-Masius and, later that year, as a reprinted hardcover by another American house, A. L. Burt, sporting the exact same cover as the original edition but, oddly enough, in a different color. The English publisher Jarrolds would reissue the book a year later, and then the novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 85 years, till the fine folks at Ramble House elected to resurrect it in 2013. Featuring another informative introduction by John Pelan and some more colorful cover art by the Australian-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, the book is a welcome addition to this enterprising firm’s ever-expanding catalog of erstwhile hard-to-find, quality fiction.
As for Asbury himself, he had been born in Missouri in 1889 and was thus 38 at the time of this, his first novel’s original release. During the course of a busy career as a journalist, author and screenwriter, Asbury managed to release some 18 books, only two of which were novels. For the most part, he preferred dealing in books touching on the social issues of the day, as well as histories on such various topics as the Barbary Coast, the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Chicago underworld, and Prohibition. The Devil of Pei-Ling, thus, a horror novel dealing with Satanism, Black Masses, demon possession, and supernatural murders, was a bit outside the norm for the author, and yet he managed to do it so very well, as will be seen. Asbury passed away in 1963, at age 73.
Now, as to Asbury’s debut novel itself, it is narrated to the reader by one Jerry Smith, a doctor at a large NYC hospital who, he tells us, had previously worked on several cases with Inspector Tom Conroy of the NYPD. And as The Devil of Pei-Ling begins, Jerry calls his old friend and partner to the hospital for some assistance. A mute woman had wandered near the hospital several weeks earlier, obviously in some severe fright, emaciated … and a Stigmatic, bearing the bloody marks of crucifixion on her feet, hands and head! Her wounds have neither improved nor worsened in the two weeks that she has been in hospital, and she has not uttered a single word, prompting the doctor to ask his cop buddy for help in ascertaining her origins. But very shortly, other matters crop up and take precedence. Federal Judge Mullins has just been murdered in his Manhattan home, his butler claiming to have seen him strangled by a hangman’s noose composed of dripping blood upon which a gigantic toad clambered about! Conroy had actually been tipped off by telephone earlier that evening that a murder would soon be taking place, the caller alternately having the voice of a young woman and a foul demon. A trace on that call leads Conroy and Smith to the Greenwich Village home of practicing Satanist Dorothy Crawford, a pretty 24-year-old who transforms into a devilish ghoul before their horrified eyes and gives warning as to another impending murder, that of U.S. Attorney Stanley. The doctor and cop rush to Stanley’s abode in midtown, and are witnesses themselves as the man is strangled by a bloody rope that materializes out of thin air, while leprous yellow lights flash about and a horrible, tomblike odor permeates the locked library room! Eventually, Dorothy, reverted back to her lovely self, is able to tell the two investigators the truth: She is the possessed stepdaughter of the notorious archcriminal and practicing Satanist Silvio, who had been hanged for murder a year previously but who has now returned from the dead to take vengeance on the lawmen who had prosecuted him, as well as on Dorothy herself, who had refused to go along with his evil designs.
In the days that follow, another attack takes place, this one in NYC’s posh Gramercy Park, close to Jerry’s own abode. The famous antiques collector Jerome Deeger has been brutally maimed; it seems that not only has his tongue been cut out, but every one of his fingers has been bitten off, as well! And on the table of the locked library in which Deeger had been attacked, Conroy and Smith find those severed body parts, arranged in the shape of what looks to be a Chinese character … a character that, upon investigation, denotes “Kuei,” the Chinese word for “devil”! Efforts to protect the gravely wounded Deeger prove highly ineffective, and really, what can two men with guns do against the undead demon who pops up, who is seemingly impervious to bullets, and who really does seem like a hell spawn incarnate? Dorothy’s story regarding the ancient, six-foot-high, Chinese devil statue in Deeger’s library goes far in shedding some light on the collector’s being placed on Silvio’s death list, but how now to protect the U.S. Marshal named Porter, who had actually pulled the switch on Silvio’s gallows and was thus his executioner? And how can the increasingly bewildered Jerry and Conroy possibly manage to eliminate the Satanic dead man and prevent him from committing even more mayhem?
As you may have been able to discern from this scanty plot synopsis, The Devil of Pei-Ling sweeps the reader breathlessly from one thrilling set piece to another, with occasional time-outs for fascinating discussions between our two heroes and with Dorothy. The book is simply written, in a wonderfully readable style, and most people, I have a feeling, will tear through this supernatural caper in one or two riveted sessions. Asbury’s novel is compact and concise, with absolutely no flab; a streamlined thrill ride whose only seeming purpose is to shock and entertain. Pleasingly, the reader slowly becomes aware that this is very much a tale of the supernatural, as opposed to, say, a story in the genre of “weird-menace” fiction, in which seemingly supernatural events often turn out to have a disappointingly mundane explanation. In Asbury’s book, devils and demons are genuine, men do come back from the dead, heathenish idols can be imbued with terrible powers, and the seemingly impossible turns out to be all-too possible, indeed. And that, for this reader, anyway, makes for a more gripping reading experience. This novel is also pleasingly grisly, shocking, bloody and violent, throwing in as it does ritual child sacrifice, those severed toes and tongue, hangings by bloody rope, and so on. The body count is pretty darn high, and the police detectives who Conroy brings in to assist might as well be red-shirted security officers on Star Trek, for all the good that they wind up doing.
Any number of marvelous sequences are provided for the reader, including, of course, the murders of Mullins and Stanley, and the two attempts made on Deeger, but also fascinating is the scene in which we get to see a section in a book written by an English explorer in 1817, and detailing his discovery of that devil statue and its worshippers. And, of course, the book’s finale in Porter’s apartment, with Jerry setting himself up as bait, is a guaranteed nail-biter. Asbury also throws in any number of shocking little grace notes, such as the horrible sight and sound of Dorothy’s face and voice growing demonic as she becomes possessed by her stepfather, and the so-called “Mark of the Devil” that she bears on her shoulder … a toad-shaped mark that doesn’t bleed when Jerry incises it with a scalpel, and that immediately heals over! Happily, this reader had no idea where the author was going with his story, and in retrospect, it might be that I was a little slow on the ol’ rebop, having been aware of Asbury’s religious upbringing. (Indeed, his second book, written immediately before this one, had been a biography of Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist church ordained in the U.S., who the author claimed was his great great uncle.) The Devil of Pei-Ling also functions as a “locked-room mystery” par excellence, although Agatha Christie probably would have cried “Foul!” at the supernatural solution provided. Oddly enough, Jerry Smith, our doctor/narrator here, comes off seeming a lot more savvy and competent than his friend Inspector Conroy. Jerry is also highly interested in religion and magic, he tells us, and his unlikely deductions are usually much more on the money than are those of his more unbelieving partner. It is a pity that Asbury didn’t write more novels featuring this team, and more horror novels in general; he obviously had quite a flair for the genre, to put it mildly.
The Devil of Pei-Ling, as fun as it is, does yet come with some small problems. The characters (especially Jerry on the subjects of stigmata and the Black Mass, and Dorothy on the subjects of her stepfather and her own personal history) tend to speak in “info dumps,” although this reader really didn’t have any problem with that, as those info dumps were, as I said, at least fascinating. There is a seeming (and quite unnecessary) coincidence as regards Silvio and Deeger’s butler, Hendricks, that seemed a bit forced, as well as a few instances of faulty grammar (such as “I felt as if I was suffocating”). The book, at 164 large-print pages, also feels a bit slight, but I suppose that there is nothing wrong with an author refusing to pad his novel just for the sake of extra verbiage. And as I mentioned, this whizbang story really does move as it is! So as far as any carping is concerned, that’s about it. Perhaps John Pelan is correct when he refers to this book as a “minor masterpiece.” Such a shame, really, that it was off the market for 85 years! I now find myself wanting to read Herbert Asbury’s other piece of fiction, the intriguingly titled novel The Tick of the Clock, which came out in 1928. It would be wonderful if Ramble House could manage to resuscitate this lost work for a new generation, as well. Based on my experience with The Devil of Pei-Ling, I’d be the first one online with my credit card ready…