The Devil’s Mistress by J.W. Brodie-Innes
A little while back, I shared some thoughts here regarding two books – Elliott O’Donnell’s The Sorcery Club (1912) and G. Firth Scott’s Possessed (also from 1912) – that were released by the London-based publisher William Rider & Son, whose specialty was occult literature. Now, I would like to pull off a hat trick of sorts by discussing still another supernatural book from this enterprising house; one of the two dozen that it came out with from 1910 to 1924. The book in question this time is J.W. Brodie-Innes’ remarkable offering entitled The Devil’s Mistress, released by Rider as a hardcover in 1915, the same year that it reprinted Bram Stoker’s 1909 work The Lady of the Shroud. A combination historical novel, biography, horror excursion and fantasy, The Devil’s Mistress succeeds marvelously in all four of those departments, and yet sank into relative oblivion after its 1915 debut. As a matter of fact, it remained OOPs (out of prints) for almost 60 years, until resurrected in 1974 for inclusion in Sphere Books’ (another British publisher) Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult series; a paperback that is becoming increasingly difficult to find today at a reasonable price. After this 1974 revival, the book would sadly go OOPs again, this time for another 35 years, until the fine folks at Ramble House chose to bring it back in 2009 to flabbergast a new generation of readers. Featuring another beautiful piece of cover art by the Australian-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, as well as photos of the two previous editions on its back cover, this modern-day volume makes the acquisition of this erstwhile rarity a breeze, and a good thing, too, considering the book’s manifold patent qualities.
Before delving into the wonders to be found in the novel, a quick word on the author himself. John William Brodie-Innes was born in Morayshire, Scotland in 1848. Though he worked as a lawyer for most of his adult life, Brodie-Innes is today best remembered as the author of four novels, as well as for being a member in good standing of the occult society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; some other authors in the society around that time included Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer. The Devil’s Mistress was the author’s fourth novel of those four, released when he was already 67 years old. Brodie-Innes ultimately passed away in 1923, at the age of 75.
Now, as to this, his most well-regarded work, The Devil’s Mistress tells the real-life story of Isabel Goudie, who, in 1662, during the course of four lengthy sessions over a six-week period, confessed to the crime of witchcraft in such precise and exacting detail as had never been encountered before and rarely since. As Brodie-Innes tells us in his introduction:
…All the leading characters in the story are actual historic persons, and the incidents told of them vouched by contemporary writings. I have merely set down as truthfully as I could what the actors undoubtedly believed to be unquestionable facts, and must leave it to the reader to decide whether a monstrous delusion swept over the whole country, or whether a strange manifestation of supernatural powers, either evil or good, took place some three centuries ago. In either case, it is an interesting study in the history of human thought…
Thus, the author’s biographical novel (if I may call it that) is set in the Scottish Highlands of the late 1650s; specifically, the counties of Nairn and Moray, the area of his birth, just south of the Moray Firth. It was the era in which Charles II had been deposed, Cromwell was ruling England as the Lord Protector, and the Protestant Covenanters were busily engaged in persecuting so-called Papists, and in punishing witchcraft. Against this backdrop we are introduced to young Isabel (her age is never given – and indeed, there are no historical records of her birth date – but the reader somehow assumes that she is in her 20s), who was brought up as a Roman Catholic but forced to convert to Protestantism after marrying the glum and religious John Gilbert. After several years of being married to the boorish farmer, Isabel was desperate for adventure, romance, excitement … anything to relieve the tedious monotony of her drab existence. And then one day, whilst walking alone, she chanced to meet a handsome stranger, who bade her to meet him one night at the local Auldearn church. And it is there that Isabel learned that the dashing young man was in fact none other than the Devil, who she later referred to as the Dark Master. Isabel was quickly admitted into the Devil’s local coven and in fact made its queen. Ol’ Sathanas had quickly fallen in lust with the flame-haired beauty, and Isabel returned his desires in kind. What followed, according to Isabel’s later testimony, were the happiest days of her life, as she feasted, danced and cavorted with the coven; learned the use of spells and other magics to aid her few friends and torment her enemies (most particularly the hated Laird of Hay and Park, who had earlier made outrageous sexual advances on her, a married woman); went hunting for both animals and humans on airborne horses; learned how to enter Elfinland, the realm of the fairies; and, of course, spent hours making love with her Dark Master.
But trouble, as might be expected, soon lay in store for Isabel Goudie. Her only real female friend, Jean Gordon, a Catholic who was engaged to the English soldier Cosmo Hamilton, also Catholic, was finding that her hoped-for marriage might not come off, due to the then-current Protestant persecution. Meanwhile, Jean’s uncle, Robert Gordon, who I suppose might be called a philosopher/alchemist/truth seeker today, and who had previously had some dealings with the Devil himself, was soon coming to the end of his long life, and in great fear that Satan would now be calling for his due. Isabel, apparently, had greatly wished to help the two Gordons, even if doing so meant that she had to go against the wishes of her Dark Master and the even-more-powerful Lords of Fate. But would it be even possible for this good girl gone bad to suddenly change her ways and challenge such formidable forces?
Now, before going on, I would like to alert potential readers that The Devil’s Mistress is not what I would call a particularly “easy book”; as a matter of fact, it might require a fair amount of work on the reader’s part for a complete appreciation. As a person with the compulsive need to research every word, reference and place name that is unfamiliar, I found this novel one that it was impossible to simply tear through, and indeed, almost every page offered up some tidbit that I was compelled to look up, be it a bit of obscure vocabulary (on the inside front cover of my Ramble House edition, I wrote down 90 Scottish, British and archaic words that I’d encountered therein, with their definitions, for the benefit of the lucky person who inherits this book from me … words such as “tawpie,” “gralloch,” “springald,” “kist,” “puddock,” “aroint,” “bannock” and “gowk”), some unknown historical reference (you’ll learn a lot about the histories of mid-17th century Scotland, England and France if you put in the requisite research), or some unheard of Scottish locale (even my Times Atlas of the World, the best one out there, was not always helpful with some of these place names, many of them defunct). Brodie-Innes surely did do his homework before penning his book, and so a little research on the reader’s part will likewise be needed and beneficial. But is all that work worth it, you’re doubtless wondering. Happily enough, in this case, the answer is a very big “Yes!”
As mentioned, The Devil’s Mistress functions as an historical novel, allowing us to relive a specific and tumultuous era in European history. It works as a beautifully imagined retelling of Isabel Goudie’s life story, as a tale of horror (though never particularly scary, the book yet features a hideous-looking old witch, scenes of wanton killing, the nighttime disinterment of an infant, spell-induced sickness, and of course the Devil, whose actual hideous form Isabel only gets to see once), and as a charming fantasy (especially when Isabel enters the flower-filled Elfinland and gets to meet the king and queen of the fairies). Brodie-Innes’ book is masterfully well written, with a marvelous sense of place and historical backdrop, as well as copious convincing detail. (The hated Laird’s abode doesn’t just have white walls, and steps in front, but “white harled walls and corby steps” … again, look it up!) And goodness gracious, how many splendidly well-done sequences are to be had here, including Isabel’s coven initiation; Isabel’s making of the “moon paste,” with which she later molds effigies of her enemies to work voodoolike spells; the manhunt that Isabel and the coven experience with the Dark Master, killing their human enemies from their flying steeds; the witching of Harry Forbes, the local minister, as well as the Laird and his son; that visit to Elfinland, and Isabel’s change of heart as a result; the monstrous storm that Isabel raises to save Cosmo on the high seas; Isabel’s defiance of the Dark Master and the Lords of Fate; Gordon’s final horseback race with the Devil; the priest Blackhall’s showdown with the Dark Master; and the Devil’s final temptation. Wonderful scenes, all, brought to life from the dusty annals of a 1662 court proceeding via Brodie-Innes’ talented hand. If these incidents did indeed happen, they make for one of the most remarkable case histories of all time. If they were merely fancy on Isabel Goudie’s part, however, or the result of ergotism psychosis, as some suspect today … well, they still make for one helluva tall tale!
And if the reader is wondering why even a woman who’s desperate for some excitement in her life would be willing to give herself over completely to the Devil, let’s just say that Ol’ Scratch functions here as the ultimate “bad boy” boyfriend. And really, which woman could resist a handsome man who shows her how to cure sick cattle, as well as sick friends? The Dark Master bad boy also teaches Isabel to put a magicked broom in her bed at night, fooling her husband into thinking that she’s still at home. He gives her those voodoolike powers, as well as the ability to kill with the thumb-flicked “Arrows of Death.” He teaches her to create a flying horse from a blade of grass, how to send her spirit self elsewhere (so that she can appear to be sitting in church while actually hanging out with the coven), and how to transform herself into a bird, hare or cat. He’s fond of feasting, drinking, lovemaking and general carousing. He shows Isabel how to create charms to avert harm and reunite lovers, enter Elfinland, and raise storms. He even gives her a personal attendant, a demon named Red Reiver, which she can summon whenever she’s in need of help. Honestly, is there a female out there who could resist all this, and the ultimate bad boy Himself?
Readers who put in the work and make it through The Devil’s Mistress will surely come away wondering how a book of such remarkable merits could have seen only two printings since its first appearance in 1915. I really cannot find too much to fault with Brodie-Innes’ final novel, other than the fact that the real-life Isabel Goudie was supposedly illiterate, yet is said to be fond of reading in Brodie-Innes’ book, and even a fan of Shakespeare’s plays. Too, the historical final fate of Isabel Goudie has never been definitively verified, only speculated upon, whereas in this novel, we do learn what ultimately happened to her. There is also one seeming misstep that the author makes here; to wit, when he tells us that the scholar/wizard Michael Scot had cleft the Eildon Hills into three “a hundred years before.” But if the real-life Scot passed away in 1232, and this story transpires around 1660 … well, something doesn’t quite add up there. But these nitpickings aside, I do heartily recommend The Devil’s Mistress to one and all … especially to lovers of historical fiction, horror, and dark fantasy. Just have your unabridged dictionary, a good atlas, and your Google machine by your side, settle in, and prepare yourself for one wild ride!