When I got back from Sussex last Thursday I found not one but two of those red card thingies from the postman. One of them I knew related to a DVD box set that a friend kindly sent me on loan. (Game of Thrones, Season 2, if you must know.) The other was more mysterious. Imagine my surprise when, having toddled down the road to the depot, I retried two hefty parcels. One was indeed the American TV series that is firming up the pension schemes of so many fine British actors. The other was this...
Yes, it's a volume of tales by Mark Valentine, who is surely one of the top chaps of modern English weird fiction. As you can see, it's a typical Tartarus hardback, produced to the highest standards and a thing of
beauty in itself. But what of the contents?
Well, in Herald of the Hidden you will find all the stories involving Mark Valentine's occult sleuth, Ralph Tyler, plus several stand-alone tales. The Tyler tales were previously published from the mid-Eighties onward in chapbooks, here and there. I was aware of one rarity, 14 Bellchamber Tower, but never managed to bag a copy. So it was, as they always say, with great interest that I began reading.
Now, while I enjoy Mark Valentine's fiction, I have mixed feelings about the sub-genre of occult detection. Supernatural phenomena (in fiction) should be just barely comprehensible enough to be frightening or awe-inspiring - they should never be explained away, or at least not entirely. For this reason I never took to Carnacki and find John Silence a bit of a bore. But I was pleased to discover that Mark Valentine created Tyler as something of an antidote the myriad know-it-all experts with an access-all-areas pass. Such characters are just variations on Sherlock Holmes with an ectoplasm detector.
Tyler is indeed very unlike Carnacki or Silence, being essentially a normal bloke with an abnormal interest in unusual phenomena. Add to that very well-described English settings - in and around Northamptonshire - and you get some very satisfying yarns. Traditionalists will love the prevalence of small villages, rural churches, and stately homes. Those who like second-guessing the author will enjoy trying to work out just what is going on before Tyler does the big reveal. (Assuming he does - another winning aspect of the stories is that Tyler doesn't always tell all to his clients, because he doesn't always sympathise with their aims.)
Most of these are early stories, and judging from his introduction the author finds them a bit rough. But all display Mark Valentine's elegant command of narrative, his economical turn of phrase, and his fascination with the odd byways of history and folklore. I'll have a lengthier review in due course.