Saturday 8 January 2022

EYES OF TERROR and other Dark Adventures by L.T. Meade (Swan River Press 2021)

This very handsome volume has lovely cover art by Brian Coldrick, which gives a pretty good idea of the content. Sinister veiled lady , hypodermic, whacking great snake, revolver, chap in a top hat! Might we be in the realms of weird Victorian fiction? Good Lord, yes. 

L.T. Meade was an Irish-born contemporary of H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and enjoyed comparable popularity in the 1890s, when she was one of the top writers for The Strand magazine. Her reputation has not lasted so well, though, in part because her brand of weird mystery/crime fiction straddles the marshy ground between Conan Doyle's 'pure' detective fiction and Wells' proto-sf.  As a result the stories in this book ofter read like uneasy hybrids. She was also extraordinarily prolific and her girls' school stories became immensely popular, throwing the rest of her work into the shade. It is better to succeed than to fail, of course, but spare a thought for the prolific and versatile writer whose best work is almost forgotten thanks to remarkable success in one narrow field.

The first story here, 'Very Far West', sets the tone with a tale of an unusual encounter at a London theatre. An innocent doctor is lured into accompanying a beautiful young lady and her slightly dodgy-looking father to a mansion on the outskirts of London. The victim, Dr. Halifax, deduces that claims about the father's precarious health are false. But what, then, is the shady pair's objective? Suffice to say that Halifax survives a foul machination that does have echoes of at least one Sherlock Holmes case.

Meade wrote many of her stories in collaboration with experts, and it shows. Dr. Halifax's adventures were created with the help of two medical men, The same goes for the mysteries concerning Paul Gilchrist, a 'scientific man of leisure', which for my money makes him the epitome of late Victorian cool. 'The Panelled Bedroom', a nightmarish tale, nods to Poe, Collins, and lesser Gothic authors. It also introduces a recurring type in Meade's work - the brilliant woman (villain or sleuth) with some kind of special power, in this case a mesmerist.

'The Mystery of the Felwyn Tunnel' is a more conventional story, and an example of that popular sub-genre, the railway mystery. Here I was moderately proud of myself for guessing the reason why not one but two signalmen at a particular stretch of line seemed to go insane at a particular time of night. It's a nice story, a little reminiscent of Dickens' famous ghost story with a similar setting, but with a very different tone and conclusion.

With 'The Dead Hand' we are back to the theme of exceptionally gifted women, and a case for occult detective Diana Marburg. She cracks a case that does not involve any actual spookery, however. According to the excellent introduction by Janis Dawson, this is part for the course. Unlike John Silence or Carnacki, Miss Marburg - despite being telepathic and a palmist to boot - seldom involved herself with ghosts, monsters and the like. This makes the story fall a little flat, as the stakes are that most conventional of Victorian McGuffin's, a disputed inheritance.

More interesting than Marburg is the villainous but lovely Madame Koluchy, an ageless beauty who foreshadows (and perhaps influenced the creation of) Sax Rohmer's Countess Sumuru. She is also, of course, a contemporary of those remarkable undead Egyptian monarchs, Ayesha and Tera. Madame Koluchy has psychic powers, scientific genius, and knows many ways to drug or otherwise subdue her foes. In 'The Doom', which is a cracking title, her former lover confronts Koluchy and we see just how brilliant and deadly she can be. The ending is spectacular hokum and made me wonder if anyone had ever considered making a film based on these stories. There's plenty to work with. 

'Followed' is another Gothic chiller, which a blonde and blue-eyed English rose visits her prospective mother-in-law in a remote mansion on Salisbury Plain. There are hints of unnatural affection in the relationship between the girl's fiancee and his mother, and strange forces are apparently at work. Will our heroine escape by fleeing to Stonehenge? 

'The Man Who Disappeared' is another scientific mystery and arguably the weakest story included here. It reads like a long-winded attempt to steal some of Conan Doyle's thunder but is far too improbable. I find it easier to believe in the outright supernatural than the kind of far-fetched murder method outlined here. 

'Eyes of Terror', the last story, also relies upon a bit of new scientific knowledge to create a sense of the uncanny. Yet again, the theme is money and how the feckless relatives can get it from the rightful heiress. She is haunted by two glowing eyes that appear outside her window at night. No spoilers from me, but I was startled to see the story was published as early as 1904 given the solution to the mystery. Not as good as Wells, perhaps, but a decent effort and as always strong on atmosphere. 

Eyes of Terror ends with an interview entitled 'How I Write My Books', published in The Young Woman (what a title!) in January 1893. It's not surprising to find  that MEade struck to a strict writing schedule, nor that she thought 'English fiction' was at a 'very low ebb' at that time. The previous year had seen the publication of The Diary of A Nobody, 'The Yellow Wallpaper'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads. But she had a point, as 1893 itself does seem lacking in much of interest beyond Benson's Dodo and lesser works by Stevenson, Haggard, and others. It was ever thus. 

Overall, then, this volume is rather thin on what might be termed full-on supernatural tales, but is undeniably replete with Gothic tropes. Contested wills, strange powers, odd nocturnal doings, and sinister servants abound, as Meade blends the paraphernalia of the 19th century with the innovations and social upheavals that would define the 20th. 

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