The Sorcery Club by Elliott O’Donnell
1912 was something of a banner year in the field of fantastic literature. Here in the U.S., Edgar Rice Burroughs jump-started his writing career with the releases of Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars, while Jack London came out with one of his finest fantasy creations, The Scarlet Plague. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, British authors Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and Arthur Conan Doyle would each give their audiences one of their very finest creations … respectively, Pan’s Garden, The Night Land and The Lost World. But there is still another fine creation from that landmark year that has seemingly gotten lost in the shuffle – perhaps due to the fact that its publication history has been a lot more erratic than that of some of those other titles – and it is a book that I have finally been able to catch up with, after many years of wanting to do so. The book in question is The Sorcery Club, by the English author Elliott O’Donnell, and it has turned out to be an absolutely splendid novel of the occult and supernatural, indeed.
The Sorcery Club was originally released in November 1912 as a hardcover volume by the British publisher William Rider & Son, and featuring interior illustrations by Phillys Vere Campbell, the sister of author Marjorie Bowen. Following a 1923 reprint, the book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 51 years, until Sphere Books chose to include it in its 45-volume series Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult, in 1974. (I recently discussed here another volume in this series, Bowen’s extraordinary 1909 novel Black Magic.) The NY-based publisher Arno Press revived the book again two years later, and then the novel would vanish for another 30 years, till the California-based publisher Aegypan Press came out with its own iteration in 2006. And to celebrate the centennial of The Sorcery Club (give or take a few years), the Dancing Tuatara Press division of Ramble House came out with its own deluxe edition in 2014, the one that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire. And as it happens, I’m glad now that I waited to pick up this novel, as the Ramble House volume is surely the one to get. Featuring another wonderfully informative introduction by Ramble House main man John Pelan, the original interior artwork by Vere Campbell, an afterword giving the history of the book, and some more terrific cover art by the Australian-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, this edition makes for a nicely appropriate centennial celebration, indeed!
As for O’Donnell himself, he had been born in Bristol, England in 1872, and was thus 40 at the time of this novel’s release. The Sorcery Club was O’Donnell’s fourth full-length piece of fiction, following For Satan’s Sake (1904), The Unknown Depths (1905) and Dinevah the Beautiful (1907). But today, he is probably best remembered for the dozens of nonfiction books that he wrote on the subjects of hauntings, the supernatural and the occult; books with such titles as Some Haunted Houses (1908), Haunted Highways and Byways (1914), Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916), Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London (1934) and Spookerisms: Twenty-Five Weird Happenings (1936). Happily, O’Donnell lived to the ripe old age of 93 before passing away in 1965.
Now, as to this, widely considered his greatest creation, the novel introduces us to one Leon Hamar, a starving, out-of-work ex-clerk whose life is changed when he seeks shelter in a San Francisco bookstore during a rainstorm. Hamar is forced by the store’s owner to purchase a volume that he has accidentally damaged, and upon returning home, discovers that the antique book had been written by an Englishman in 1690, and that the book is an account of the volumes and papers that the British sailor had found in an ancient chest on Inisturk, an island off the Irish coast. The Englishman, in his book, had detailed the contents of those relics – artifacts of the Atlantean civilization of old (!) – giving not only a history of the legendary sunken continent, but also a step-by-step guide to its sorceries and necromantic rites! Thus, Hamar consults two of his other starving former colleagues, Ed Curtis and Matt Kelson, and the three agree to try to summon up “the Unknown.” “We would do anything, sell our very souls for a meal,” Curtis prophetically declares. And so, as directed in the 17th century book, a week of immoral activities is followed by a series of exacting tests, and finally, the trio is indeed successful in conjuring up an Atlantean spirit, who seems to take the form of an albino tree. In a sequence forcibly suggesting the origins of the Garden of Eden myth, the men are made to eat the fruit of this tree, and so the pact is struck. The trio is instructed that they must stay together for almost two years, and not marry during their time of trial, lest calamity fall upon them. In exchange, every three months, they will be given various wonderful powers over the course of seven stages – the power of divination, second sight, mind/body separation, invisibility, walking on and breathing beneath water, the inflicting of diseases, the ability to create plagues, the knowledge of healing all ailments, the ability to transform people into vampires and werewolves, and finally, complete power over women’s affections – each successive power replacing the one that had preceded it, until, at the end of the seventh stage, all those manifold powers would be returned to them forever! At first, the trio uses their newfound ability to read minds and blackmail various San Francisco society ladies, but before long, Hamar decides to enlarge their scope of lucrative activities.
Thus, in the book’s second (and much longer) section, Hamar, Curtis and Kelson move to London and open a wonder-working show known as the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. The London crowds are understandably stunned at the marvels that the trio is able to accomplish, and things seem to be going swimmingly for everyone except poor John Martin, whose own theatrical magic show is now losing customers to the newcomers, and whose oldest friend and partner has recently passed away. And matters soon grow very problematic, indeed, when Shiel Davenport, the impecunious nephew of that deceased partner, arrives and falls in love with Martin’s daughter, Gladys; when Hamar takes a hot-blooded fancy to Gladys himself; when Kelson falls in love with Hamar’s secretary, Lilian Rosenberg; and when Lilian finds herself falling in love with Shiel! And that nephew, to aid the Martin family, soon vows to bring the mysterious Modern Sorcery Company down, while Hamar does his darnedest to hold things together for the requisite 21 months. But will all his newfound abilities be enough to subdue the trio’s most basic instincts and desires?
The Sorcery Club, despite being a novel dealing with the supernatural and showcasing some ghastly incidents scattered throughout, is never what I would call especially scary, although it surely is consistently fascinating. Perhaps the single finest element in O’Donnell’s book is the prodigious amount of detail that he gives us regarding the precise instructions for the initial tests and for the fulfillment of the various magics, not to mention the wonderfully involved history of Atlantis itself and the reason for its demise. The novel is immensely imaginative, with numerous anecdotes included pertaining to each stage of the trio’s powers. And the author gives his readers any number of brilliant set pieces here, including the initial appearance of “the Unknown” in a nighttime forest outside of San Francisco; a look at one of the performances that Hamar, Curtis and Kelson wow their audience with; the plight of Hamar being thrown in jail after indiscreetly vanishing and then reappearing in a crowded train; the mind-boggling sequence in which Hamar, to pressure Gladys into a relationship, plagues her household with giant cockroaches and other pests; and the scene in which Shiel uses a centuries-old law to bring the Modern Sorcery Company to court. And I just love the remarkably explicit list of cures for just about every human malady. You want details? Check out this surefire cure for cancer:
…Take the sea wrack Torrek Mendrek [an Atlantean plant] – a weed of deep mauve colour streaked with white. It must be boiled for three hours in clear spring water (3 ozs. of wrack to half a pint of water), and then let to cool. When quite cold, a dessert-spoon of it should be taken by the sufferer every four hours – and at the end of two days the disease will have completely disappeared. The wrack is to be found at the twenty fathom level, six miles west-south-west of the Scilly Isles…
Got all that?
As for our three leading men, they are hardly what I’d call a likeable bunch – especially that Hamar – and grow increasingly less sympathetic as events proceed, but at least they are nicely differentiated, with Curtis being a glutton for food and drink, Kelson an inveterate womanizer, and Hamar the coldly calculating and perhaps most intelligent of the bunch. Surprisingly, Shiel, who one might expect to be something of a proactive hero, turns out to be a rather ineffective player, whereas the two women – Gladys and especially Lilian – are the main drivers; this, despite Shiel resolving “that he would for once fare like the hero in romance.” And ultimately, it is Lilian who evinces the most grit and common sense, as when she declares “I don’t think we have any right to pry into the Unknown. Some day, undoubtedly, it will be given us to know, but until that day comes, we had far better leave it alone.”
For the rest of it, The Sorcery Club is longish, filled with incident, very well written and increasingly suspenseful, as we wonder whether or not the trio’s plans will be brought to nought, and thus bring disaster on their heads. O’Donnell has a very keen ear for realistically rendered dialogue (replete with the Brit slang of a century ago), and makes a point of including some barbed social commentary throughout. Thus, the plethora of people – men, woman and children – who come to the trio to purchase charms to work ill on their supposed loved ones; Hamar’s lecture on how half the people in the world thieve from the other half; and the horrible sight of hundreds of homeless people sleeping at night in Hyde Park, prompting Lilian to declare “The Park to-night gives the lie direct to the ethics of all religions, and to the boasted efforts of all governments, churches, chapels, hospitals, police, progress and civilization…” And, of course, the book speaks volumes about what poverty and hunger will drive decent men to do. O’Donnell’s novel even includes some pleasing bursts of humor, such as when Curtis tells Hamar “We’ve good news for you,” and Hamar replies “Have you both got cancer?” (Perhaps I have failed to make it clear that the three men, even early on, are never exactly friends; more like starving rats forced into one another’s company.) And oh, how amusing it is when O’Donnell, in one of his many explanatory footnotes, refers the reader to a book called Byways of Ghostland, which was released by … Elliott O’Donnell, in 1911.
To be completely honest, The Sorcery Club does have a few problems that prevent me from giving it a perfect grade. Typical for the era, the book sports some casual instances of anti-Semitism, as well as some other choice epithets. It also ends a tad too abruptly for my taste, although it must be allowed that most of the characters get their just deserts, and that every plot detail is nicely resolved. Puzzling for me was the fact that Hamar, Curtis and Kelson are shown employing British slang even before they arrive in London; I couldn’t quite figure that out. Perhaps worst of all, though, is when O’Donnell mentions that Kelson had received the power of leaving his body, and that Curtis had the power to self-levitate, whereas previous events had shown that it was precisely the other way around; a major oopsie! And as good a writer as O’Donnell patently was, he had an odd habit of inserting extraneous commas into his sentences, and employing oddball (British?) spellings (such as “to-night,” “to-morrow” and “any one”). But these, of course, are mere quibbles, and The Sorcery Club remains a tremendously entertaining accomplishment that I was very happy to finally experience. “The doings of these three sorcerers and the amazing events which follow keep the attention of the reader at a very high pitch,” The Liverpool Courier proclaimed back in 1912, and boy, is that ever the truth!
As stated in John Pelan’s introduction, the author’s final novel, 1952’s The Dead Riders, is widely deemed his other best book, and that is where this instant O’Donnell fan would like to be heading next. Wish me luck as I endeavor to track down a copy…