Ever since I was a wee lad, I’ve been a fan of the type of motion picture known as the “anthology-horror film.” It was 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors that first pulled me in back then, a product of the British studio Amicus, which would go on to deliver six more similar films over the next nine years. Oh … for those of you wondering what I mean by an “anthology-horror film,” simply stated, it is a type of picture with one overarching story line and numerous stand-alone side stories included. The 1945 British film Dead of Night, from Ealing Studios, may be considered the classy grandpappy of the genre (if not the first), another movie that I simply adore. I bring up these films because, just as there is a genre known as the anthology-horror film, there is also, it seems, a similar genre in literature. And I cannot help wondering whether the wonderful example of such that I have recently experienced, namely The Master of the Macabre, might not have been inspired by that popular British film.
The Master of the Macabre was originally released by the British publisher Rich & Cowan as a hardcover volume in 1947 … two years after Dead of Night’s debut. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 66 years, till Valancourt Books opted to resurrect it in 2013, featuring the same cover art as had graced its first edition, and another scholarly introduction from Mark Valentine, who had done similar erudite work for Valancourt’s 2013 releases of R. C. Ashby’s He Arrived at Dusk (1933) and Oliver Onions’ The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (1939).
As for the author of The Master of the Macabre, he was none other than Russell Thorndike, who had been born in Kent in 1885 and was thus 62 at the time of this book’s release. Thorndike was a kind of double threat, being a popular stage and screen actor – although not quite as popular as his older sister, the actress Sybil Thorndike – as well as a revered author. He was the creator of the swashbuckling smuggler character Dr. Syn – who was featured in seven of Thorndike’s novels between 1915 and 1944 – and also wrote nine other novels, in addition to some nonfiction, including a biography of his sister. The author ultimately passed away in 1972, at the age of 87. His love of both the theater and cinema would lead one to suspect that he almost surely saw the movie Dead of Night, but on this score, I am merely speculating. What can be stated with certainty, however, is that The Master of the Macabre, his penultimate novel, adopts a similar format as that famous film.
The book introduces the reader to an author named Tayler (not Taylor) Kent, who departs from his London home during a raging blizzard after suffering a month’s worth of haunting dreams. Kent decides to drive through the heavy snow to his cottage in Romney Marsh (the dreary Kentish locale of the Dr. Syn novels), stopping en route to deliver a package to one Charles Hogarth in Wrotham (not far from Thorndike’s childhood home of Rochester); a favor for his explorer/adventurer friend Captain Carnaby. Unfortunately for Tayler, he wrecks his car and injures his ankle in the blizzard; fortunately for Tayler, the crack-up happens not too far from Hogarth’s abode … a converted monastery dating back to the 12th century, or rather, the only wing left standing of it. Kent is warmly received and cared for by Hogarth (who, we deduce from reading between the lines, is 55) and his factotum, Hoadley, and over the next few days learns that he has fetched up in a rather remarkable situation. And it is at this point that Thorndike’s novel begins to reveal the three-part nature of its story line.
Thus, in one of these story lines, we learn that the monastery home is haunted by the ghosts of a renegade Italian monk named Porfirio and by a female novice. During his convalescent stay, Kent suffers continued bad dreams, now featuring both the wicked-looking monk and the beautiful young girl. Just why the two have haunted this abode over the centuries makes for one intriguing story line, to be sure. But that’s not all. Hogarth, who Carnaby has dubbed the titular “Master of the Macabre,” is, as it turns out, a dedicated investigator of supernatural occurrences; a collector of outre and bizarre stories, and of the curios and knickknacks pertaining to them. In his youth, he’d been given a black overcoat with a red lining while working in an acting troupe in Calcutta. The stranger who had thrust the garment upon him had then run off, and the coat had later been stolen by a sinister-looking gang of Indians upon Hogarth’s return to England. And now, in the present day, another gang of Indian hillmen has started to surround his property, their precise intentions unknown. And as if the hauntings by two ghosts and the mysterious doings of the Indians weren’t enough for one book, we have the side stories. Oh, my goodness … the side stories! Hogarth, you see, owns a curio cabinet in which reside dozens of souvenirs from his various adventures and investigations. So after the evening meals, Tayler is asked to select a knickknack, each of which elicits a remarkable tale from Hogarth’s wealth of globe-trotting experiences. They are stories that understandably gobsmack Tayler (and Carnaby as well, when he pops up halfway through the book) … not to mention the reader. But what was in that package that Carnaby had asked Kent to deliver, anyway?
Now, just as Dead of Night was not the first supernatural-anthology type of film – the American film Flesh and Fantasy had been released two years earlier – The Master of the Macabre was not the first in its genre either, and indeed, in his intro, Valentine mentions two prior books of this ilk: Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882) and Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895). But even if it was not the first, Thorndike’s novel yet strikes this reader as a very fine example of the genre, done to a perfect turn. The book really is a generously stuffed cornucopia of wonders, what with two compelling main stories plus no fewer than nine remarkable short stories subsumed within. Not all the stories are supernatural in nature, to be honest; some are merely grisly, some are wild adventures, one borders on science fiction, some are historical. But one thing they share is the quality of being grippingly well told by either Hogarth, Carnaby or our narrator, Tayler. And again, those stories; those remarkable anecdotes drawn forth by the odd curios in that library cabinet! Thus, a spade with a horseshoe handle brings us to a tale about a mad sexton; a killer who is hanged and returns from the grave to take vengeance on his hangman. A golden tassel atop a gray wig results in three linked astonishing tales dating back to the time of England’s Great Plague in 1665; the first, in which a highwayman escapes his pursuers in a cartload of putrescent corpses, just might be the grisliest tale in this entire volume! Hogarth’s recounting of his lost-coat experience sets the stage for modern-day events, and then a dented brass button carries us to the story of one Captain Dawson, and his Ahab-like obsession to kill the shark that had eaten his wife and daughter off the coast of Zanzibar. One of two skulls in the curio cabinet leads Hogarth to tell the story of how he’d come upon it as a youth, and of how the skull had come alive one night! Carnaby’s remarkably well-researched back story of Porfirio during the Third Crusade follows soon after, and then that other skull results in Hogarth telling of his adventures, again as a young man, with the larger-than-life sea captain Hans Ackstart, when they searched for aboriginal skulls on the desolate island of Tierra del Fuego. A white moth with a broken wing spurs our host to tell one of his more violent stories, in which a young albino man is driven to murderous frenzy after spending one night in his new pest-ridden abode. And finally, an oddly shaped key leads to the tale of how a medieval prince saved his besieged city from the grip of a murderous outlaw. To sum up, take these nine short stories, add the two overarching and bracketing main stories, mix in the intermittent and quite horrible dreams that Kent tells us about, and you really do find yourself with one helluva collection!
I should perhaps emphasize, at this point, that Thorndike does tend to get grisly, nasty and even shocking in his stories here. Thus, the reader must be prepared to encounter such bits of unpleasantness as hangings, multiple ghosts, bats, decayed corpses, shark killings, living skulls, self-flagellation, plague victims, a mental asylum, slugs, enormous cat-eating spiders (!), the quickliming of severed heads, a giant worm, immuration and so on. The reader will surely never suspect what kind of amazing development or plot twist will come up next, and the incorporation of real-life personages (such as the actor/playwright Matheson Lang and actor Montague Love) into the action of the stories helps lend a patina of verisimilitude to them. Adding pleasure to Thorndike’s novel is the fact that all four of its lead characters – Kent, Hogarth, Carnaby and Hoadley – are well-drawn, interesting and likeable sorts, Hogarth especially, of course. The man is not so much a psychic detective in the classic sense as a researcher of unusual historical events and a hoarder of the trinkets pertaining to them. Thus, unlike William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, and Alice and Claude Askew’s Aylmer Vance, who are available for hire by those who require their expertise in supernatural affairs, hauntings and suchlike, Hogarth is primarily a student, with a remarkable collection to show from his years of research. Hardly a “ghost-buster” type, he is as likely as the next person to be afflicted by the spirits of the dead and at a loss as to how to deal with them.
In all, The Master of the Macabre, what with its blizzardy backdrop, really does make for perfect reading on a cold winter night. It is to be regretted that Thorndike never gave us a sequel to this remarkable volume, despite Kent’s telling us that Hogarth “has promised to tell me more stories from his collection.” This book would have made for the ultimate Amicus film production … although it would’ve needed to have been a four-hour film to do its source novel justice!
I have very few complaints to lodge against Thorndike’s exemplary work here. Oh, the Brit slang might be a bit challenging for modern American ears (unless you already happen to know what “castor sugar” is, or what is meant by “spiking his guns” and “selling one a pup”), but nothing that your local Google machine couldn’t assist you with. A more serious matter for this reader is when the author tells us that “Ver Rex” is Latin for “Worm King.” Nope … it means “Spring King.” I believe Thorndike was going for “Vermis Rex.” I also couldn’t understand how Captain Carnaby was able to capture the thieves who had stolen Hogarth’s overcoat on their return to Kashmir more than 30 years after the theft had occurred. But I really should say no more on that particular subject, which is a very minor matter, at best. The bottom line is that The Master of the Macabre really does offer top-quality entertainment value and manages to hold up marvelously all these decades later. It is an anthology-horror novel that all fans of supernatural doings should just eat up with a spoon. As for me, I would now love to read another of Russell Thorndike’s works. Fortunately, I see that Valancourt has also resurrected the author’s second novel, the intriguingly titled affair called The Slype (1927), and it is one that this reader hopes to be experiencing soon…