Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales by Seabury Quinn, edited by Gene Christie (Black Dog Books)

Author Seabury Quinn is probably best known to modern readers for his series of short stories featuring occult detective Jules de Grandin, as well as for his marked influence on the works of fellow author Robert E. Howard. But Quinn's career spanned sixty years: from 1917, the year "The Law of Movies" (a nonfiction article included as an appendix to this collection) saw print, to 1977, when his novel Alien Flesh was published, with at least 150 other works in the intervening years.

Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales, edited and with an introduction and bibliography by Gene Christie and published by Black Dog Books, collects Quinn's earliest known fiction along with other rarities, including the aforementioned "Law of the Movies." It is a humorous and insightful look at the way legal matters are presented on film that is just as applicable today as it was in 1917, even though its examples consist entirely of obscure silent films (none of which appear to be available on video).

The title story, "Demons of the Night," is just the kind of derivative tale — familiar but with a twist — that many an author has used as his entry to published genre fiction, and it is wholly entertaining if taken in that spirit. (The ending especially is that of an oft-told campfire story.)

"Was She Mad?" is reminiscent of classic Poe with genuine horror contained in it. Though many authors have tackled the "possessed artifact" tale, Quinn's "The Stone Image" manages to be surprisingly effective at chilling the spine, even though its tropes are all too familiar.

"Painted Gold" is one of a few surprises found by editor Gene Christie in his searches. Neither it or "Romance Unawares" have been reprinted since their publication in Young's Magazine in 1919 and 1920, respectively. In the former, Lt. Rathburn Thomas has little appreciation for the feminine form until the continuous company of men in the service puts him on the prowl. Quinn warns us with his trademark erudite humor: "When a perfectly nice young man begins to act in this way, there is danter ahead, particularly for him; for it is from such that the victims of the Strange Woman are recruited."

But despite this protest, "Painted Gold" is an unexpectedly sweet romantic tale of a fellow who meets a beautiful woman but is put off by her rouge and lipstick, since that was only worn by the cheap girls back home. "Romance Unawares" is another truly sweet story of two life-long friends whom the whole town expect to be married and who find out (of course) that they really cannot do without each other. These stories show a different side of Seabury Quinn than the other early tales in Demons of the Night, but it's one I wouldn't mind seeing more of.

"The Cloth of Madness" is most famous for its appearance in Weird Tales, but it was actually first printed in Young's, too. It's a classic tale of the cuckold getting revenge in one of the most original ways I've read. The fiction of Demons of the Night closes with two of Quinn's Major Sturdevant stories, "Ravished Shrines" and "Out of the Land of Egypt" — neither of which impressed me, though Loomis is an engaging narrator — and two from his Professor Forrester series, "In the Fog" and "The Black Widow."

It is in the Professor Forrester tales, especially "In the Fog," that I found the most direct antecedent to the style of Robert E. Howard, both in the constant action and in the varied, poetic vocabulary. "In the Fog" finds Forrester locking himself inadvertently into a "house of mysteries" that is like a trip to the Orient, and that will require all of his myriad (and mildly implausible though wildly entertaining) talents to escape alive.

I especially admired how Quinn uses the house to allow the reader to experience a globe-trotting adventure without his hero's having to leave Washington. "In the Fog" is the first of the series that appeared in Read Detective Tales throughout 1927 and 1928, and explains the origin of the woman who would later be his ward. "The Black Widow" is equally engaging, though more a mystery than an adventure.

Editor and compiler Christie brings Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales to a satisfying conclusion by offering the reader the breadth of Quinn's published work with an extensive bibliography — as full as is currently known, anyway. Given the organic nature of the discovery process, Christie considers the bibliography a work in progress and gives contact information in the introductory paragraph, welcoming any new information the reader can offer.

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