The Whistling Ancestors by Richard E. Goddard
And so, I have just come to the end of another lot of books from the remarkable publisher known as Ramble House. And what an octet of books they were! In chronological order: Elliott O’Donnell’s The Sorcery Club (1912), which tells of ancient Atlantean magic being used by a trio of men in modern-day London; G. Firth Scott’s Possessed (1912), in which a deceased business magnate takes over the body of one of his former employees; J. W. Brodie-Innes’ The Devil’s Mistress (1915), which tells the story of real-life “witch” Isabel Goudie in 17th century Scotland; Paul Busson’s The Fire Spirits (1923), a (possibly) supernatural shocker set in the 19th century Tyrol; Herbert Asbury’s The Devil of Pei-Ling (1927), which gives us the story of a deceased Satanist and his vengeance from the grave; Sean M’Guire’s Beast Or Man? (1930), in which a man/ape hybrid leads a colony of gorillas in a war against both white hunters and natives; and Collin Brooks’ Mad-Doctor Merciful (1932), a combination medical thriller and supernatural horror outing. And finally, the book that I have just experienced, which very well might be the wildest, most outrageous book of the bunch: Richard E. Goddard’s The Whistling Ancestors. And if you have not previously heard of The Whistling Ancestors, that can be very easily explained.
Goddard’s novel was originally released by the British publisher Stanley Smith in a hardcover edition in 1936, featuring unfaithful cover art by an unknown artist. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 73 years, until Ramble House decided to resurrect it in 2009. Featuring still another wonderfully informative introduction by RH main man John Pelan, as well as some more beautifully imaginative cover art by the Australia-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, the book is another erstwhile rarity that can today only be found in this enterprising publisher’s ever-expanding catalog. Now as to the book’s author himself, I wish I had something to tell you, but the facts on Richard E. Goddard’s background and career are seemingly impossible to dig up today. All I know is what Pelan reveals in his intro: “Richard E. Goddard was a British sales guru in the 1930s with the primer General Cargo: An Introduction to Salesmanship to his credit. The book is every bit as dry and repetitive as most such titles are, and there’s little to indicate the sort of deranged imagination that would produce a novel like The Whistling Ancestors…” And that’s it. Thus, I cannot say how old Goddard was when he produced this, his only book obtainable today. But the man’s abundant talent, as evinced by this one work, becomes manifest fairly early on.
The Whistling Ancestors is narrated to us (for the most part) by a young man named Patrick Worthing, who scrapes by as a sidewalk artist living in modern-day London. Pat’s placid existence is shaken one day when the beautiful brunette Ines Bellenden drops some change into his bowl; a woman with whom he is immediately smitten. Ines is soon joined by her blonde friend Bridget Westerham, the daughter of an American multimillionaire tycoon. But trouble arises when Patrick notices that Ines is being followed by an enormous mulatto man, and Bridget is being tailed by an evil-looking, West Indian crone. When the old woman and the mulatto enter the church behind Patrick’s sidewalk setup, he follows, and overhears them plotting evil designs on the two young women. He also overhears the old beldame communicating with the deceased “Ancestors,” who speak in the outlandish whistling tongue that gives the novel its name. Going into full detective mode, Worthing learns that the mulatto is one Caspar Pettifranc, who runs a rejuvenation clinic in Soho. During the course of two daring reconnaissance forays into Pettifranc’s studio, Worthing discovers a zombified creature, a man laying in a bed in a state of catalepsy, and a full set of Pettifranc’s books and papers. Thus, our artist hero learns the truth: Pettifranc is not only a papaloi, a voodoo priest, but is also planning to unite the black and Asiatic races in a war against their white oppressors. And even worse: He is also a practicing Satanist, who, with the aged crone – a mamaloi named Maman Constance – is endeavoring to bring a cabal of worshippers together at his rented manor home in Cornwall, sacrifice a goat and a white woman, and compel Satan (or, as he is here called, Zamiel) to appear and bless his campaign! Thus, when Bridget is kidnapped by Pettifranc and his minions, Patrick and Ines find themselves with little choice other than jumping in a car and hightailing it in pursuit.
And in the second half of Goddard’s flabbergasting novel, things get even stranger! Once arrived in Cornwall, Pat and Ines look up the girl’s old friend Penberthy, an eccentric local artist, but all three are soon captured and imprisoned in Pettifranc’s manor. While there, Worthing learns that a Polish scientist named Kacynski has been brought in to create actual fauns and centaurs for the devil’s pleasure, utilizing modern surgical methods, living goats and humans, and the horrors of vivisection. An entire stable of mythological freaks already resides in the basement recesses of the manor, and a Scottish doctor, Dunkerley, is being held captive and coerced to assist in future operations. Also to be found in the bowels of the manor is a passel of zombies, which Pettifranc and Maman Constance have created by using both drugs and their dark arts! Amazingly, matters grow even worse for poor Patrick Worthing, when Dunkerley is told that he must use the sidewalk artist’s body in the making of the next centaur! Fortunately, however, Dunkerley instead uses the body of one of the zombies, and disguises Worthing as one of the filthy, living dead. But even with this reprieve, can Patrick, Penberthy and Dunkerley possibly rescue the two girls (three, actually, when another London beauty is added to their group) and two hostage millionaires from the madman’s manor, battle his African and West Indian minions, halt the devilish conclave, and balk Pettifranc’s plans for world conquest? A pretty tall order for a lowly sidewalk artist, I’m sure you’ll agree!
The Whistling Ancestors, as you may have been able to discern, is a book that grows wilder, zanier and more outrageous as it proceeds, but Goddard somehow manages to keep hold of the reins and barely keep things under control. His novel is, surprisingly enough, complexly plotted, and you may feel as if you need to use a scorecard of sorts to keep track of the machinations of Pettifranc and the counterplans of Worthing, Dunkerley and Penberthy. Happily, Pettifranc is a pretty terrific villain – physically imposing, highly intelligent and utterly ruthless – who goes so far as to admit “The devil is a good friend of mine,” and Maman is an even scarier proposition; a veritable witch who easily foresees all of Caspar’s mistakes. And like all good villains, the two come with an interesting gaggle of henchmen, including the creepy spy Mrs. Jansen in London, and Pettifranc’s lieutenant Polynice, whom the reader suspects of playing a double game.
Goddard peppers his book with several well-done and suspenseful set pieces, including Patrick’s two daring infiltrations of Caspar’s London studio; Patrick’s brutal fight with Barley, one of Caspar’s minions; the first look at the lab and stables in Cornwall; Caspar’s London meeting with the conclave delegates; Patrick exploring the manor house by night; and that nighttime finale at the devil convocation. And my goodness, how many oddball touches does the author throw into his story, to make this book’s wild ride even wilder! Thus, besides the stable full of surgically created mythological creatures, and Maman’s voodoo ability to commune with the dead, and the planned appearance of the devil himself, there’s the surgery that Maman has in mind, during which her youth will be restored via a blood transfusion from Ines; the sight of Pat bunking in a jail cell with the other zombies – and their “deathlike musty effluvium” – as part of his zombie disguise; the notion that if a zombie is given something highly seasoned to eat, such as a ham sandwich, it will become aware that it is one of the living dead and shamble back to its grave; Pettifranc’s zombiefying drug called S. 17, and his drug that wipes away memories and reverts one to childhood; the torture device employing high-pitched sound waves that Caspar uses on Bridget’s millionaire father; and Bridget’s (unexplained) chirping and whistling, in the Ancestors’ own language, when she is drugged back to childhood herself.
For the rest of it, Goddard’s novel, despite the loopiness of the goings-on, does feature one moment that is highly credible and relatable. When Ines first begins to realize that her apartment is being spied on, she says to Pat “This is terrible.” Trust me, it is an understated yet highly effective moment, indeed, in the midst of a crisis situation. The Whistling Ancestors is a very British novel, and a good street map of London might prove useful during the book’s early scenes, as would a map of England during Pat and Ines’ breakneck nighttime drive to Cornwall. Ultimately, the reader will marvel that a first-time novelist could have written a book as readable and as imaginative as this one; such a shame that for Goddard, it seems to have been a case of “one and done.” And that’s kind of a strange thing, as not only does the book suggest the possibility of a sequel, it practically demands it, what with several major questions remaining unanswered and … but perhaps I’d better not say. But at least we now have this book available, and a shame it is that this mind-boggling thriller was unavailable for 73 years. I guarantee that you have not encountered a novel quite like this one before!
All of which is not to say that The Whistling Ancestors is a perfect book; far from it, as a matter of fact. Goddard, as good as he is, gives his readers several descriptions that are woefully bad, and indeed, you’ll really have to strain to properly envision the interiors of Pettifranc’s London studio and Cornwall manor, as well as the tunnel system beneath that manor. Perhaps most jarring of all is the book’s abrupt transition from Worthing’s first-person narration to the use of an omniscient narrator … and back again. Or, if Worthing is indeed our narrator throughout, then he is often telling us things that he could not possibly have known, such as verbatim conversations at which he was not present. And sometimes, these transitions in apparent narrator occur from one paragraph to the next! It is decidedly odd. Other sticking points for this reader were the unconvincing psychological explanation for why Pettifranc hates the white races, one unfortunate use of the blasted “N word” on Worthing’s part, and the fact that we are never given adequate background information on Pat’s life before he became an impoverished sidewalk artist. We are told that he’s done some traveling around the world, and can well see that he’s a handy fighter and plucky fellow, but some more info on his earlier life would have been appreciated. Still, despite these drawbacks, I feel the book merits a solid four stars, mainly because it’s just so very much fun, and often quite exciting. In his introduction, Pelan tells us that when you buy a book from Ramble House, “…you already know that you’re in for a wild ride,” and that certainly is true of The Whistling Ancestors.
Now, I hate to end on a down note, but this particular volume from Ramble House, I regret to say, contains rather more typographical errors than is usual from this firm … and not just typos, but also missing words and flagrantly botched punctuation, as well. I do so wish that this otherwise wonderful house would hire a decent proofreader! Still, I am even now looking forward to making another big purchase from those Ramble House maniacs. As a matter of fact, I’ve got my next lot of 10 books picked out already! Stay tuned…