These tales first made their appearance immediately following the start of the First World War. The Aylmer Vance stories were first published in The Weekly Tale-Teller magazine in the 4 July through 22 August 1914 issues. They appeared as “Aylmer Vance: Investigator.” The stories are in line with traditional occult detective works from the decade previous.
Not quite Victorian or Edwardian, but really close.
I was unable to locate any cover images of the relevant issues of The Weekly Tale-Teller to show what they looked like. However, I was able to discover an image of a cover from sometime before (1912) and an image from sometime after (1915). Obviously, there was a major redesign at some point in between.
The first time all of the Aylmer Vance stories appeared together in a collection (to the best of my knowledge) was Aylmer Vance: Ghost Seer, edited by Jack Adrian, published in 1998 by Ash-Tree Press.
The edition under consideration here was published by Black Heath Editions in 2018. Black Heath Editions republishes lesser known works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for incredibly reasonable prices. I would not have even heard of many of these authors (and their works) had it not been for Black Heath Editions. Thank you.
The eight short tales in this collection are summarized below:
“The Invader” –
‘—for it does not do to meddle with the burial places of the primitive dead. It’s an unwise proceeding to have anything to do with an earth-bound soul—a soul whose desires are all of the earth, earthy. And Annie knew this, mark you, and felt it. She was wiser in her generation than George, but just because she was sweet and gentle——’
Vance and an acquaintance of his, the barrister Dexter, meet by chance. Both are staying at the Magpie Inn. They get to talking and upon discovering a mutual interest, Vance agrees to share with Dexter several of his experiences investigating spiritual phenomena. To start, Vance relates an episode from six years prior that convinced Vance to become interested in psychical research. The episode involves Vance’s best friend, George Sinclair and his bride, Annie. In delving into dark and ancient occult secrets, George’s foolishness lead to his devoted wife becoming possessed by a brutal sprit. Vance’s inexperience could not help them, resulting in murder-suicide and Vance is still deeply upset at failing his dear friends.
Later, Vance agrees to share with Dexter another of his psychical experiences if Dexter is still at the inn the following night.
“The Stranger” –
‘The great elemental forces, Dexter—why do we no longer believe in them—the old gods and goddesses—the lost faiths? Either we are much wiser than our forefathers, or our forefathers were much wiser than us.’
Of course, Dexter stayed. Dexter’s imagination was captured by Vance’s narration from the night before. So, that evening–a dark and stormy night, no less–they met agreeably. Over a bottle of port, Vance told the tale of Daphne Darrell.
Due to the untimely deaths of her parents, Daphne was raised by her aunt to who adored her. Vance was her guardian. Indulged in almost everything, Daphne grew up wild, unrefined and as beautiful as a woodland nymph. As a child she told Vance that in the nearby woods she had a friend; a tall young man. Years later, engaged to a suitable groom, she confessed to Vance that she loved the strange friend who she still saw, as if in a dream.
On Daphne’s wedding eve, she again confided to Vance that she did not want to get married. She wanted her strange woodland friend. That night, Vance saw her rush off into the forest. Following her, Vance observed her call out. Then the strange woodland friend appeared before Daphne in a bolt of lightning. The next morning Daphne’s body was found.
“Lady Green-Sleeves” –
‘“The grave—what have I to do with the grave? I said farewell to my mortal body over a hundred years ago; I have merely clothed myself in my old semblance to come here. I am a spirit—an immortal spirit—and it is not to the grave I am returning, but life—life!”
The next morning, Vance tells Dexter the romantic tale of the ghost, Lady Green-Sleeves. As he tells it, Vance met the Lady at a dress ball in December twelve years past, and thought she was one of the revelers. Later in the evening, Vance catches up to Lady Green-Sleeves and they chat. Uncomfortable with the strange music and dances, Lady Green-sleeves invites Vance visit her parlour in the house. When they arrive a few minutes later, Lady Green-Sleeves’ is delighted with how little it has changed. Again, Vance is confused. Laughingly, he asks if she is a ghost. She replies that she thought he knew!
Vance confesses his love for her. Lady Green-Sleeves is delighted, but she tells him that her “time for love is over.” She makes to leave but Vance begs her to stay, not to return to the grave. She promises that they will meet again, but not in this world. Vance admits to Dexter that is it foolish fancy. Dexter reassures him that they will meet again. Vance holds on to that hope.
“The Fire Unquenchable” –
‘I don’t know if you are like me,’ Vance remarked, ‘and care to read when you are in bed. Anyhow, I’d like you to glance through these poems—for I think you will allow they are poems in the strict sense of the word—and let me know in the morning what sort of impression you get from them.’
Still lodging at the Magpie Inn, Vance and Dexter spend the day fishing. As they bade each other good night, Vance handed Dexter a book of poetry written in a woman’s hand. Dexter sensed there was more to this than mere interest in poetry; perhaps this is some kind of test. While reading in bed, Dexter is impressed with the quality of the writing. After some time, he notices that his bedroom is becoming hotter and hotter. Then, he has a vision of a similar room with a woman writing something as if she were in a trance.
The next morning, Dexter finds Vance at breakfast and relates to Vance his visions and experiences from the previous night. Vance is certain that it was not merely a dream, but rather a true vision. Vance tells Dexter how he came to be in possession of the book of poetry and the book’s back-story. And so, they begin to investigate the significance of Dexter’s vision and how it connects with the book. This leads them to uncover a life’s purpose unachieved and the haunting that results. Until at last, with the task completed, love is reunited.
“The Vampire” –
Whatever the opinion of the doctors may have been, Aylmer was obviously deeply interested. And yet there was very little to show. The skin was quite intact, and there was no sign of inflammation. There were two red marks, about an inch apart, each of which was inclined to be crescent in shape.
Sometime later, Dexter decides to follow Vance into psychic and occult investigations. As a consequence of this, they now both reside together in Vance’s home, ala Holmes and Watson. Vance teaches Dexter to improve his clairvoyance. And, Dexter acts as a recorder of their experiences; again, ala Holmes and Watson.
They are called to investigate the case of a husband’s serious and mysterious blood loss. The husband, Paul Davenant, bears two scars upon his throat; he is more aware of them on certain mornings when he feels especially lethargic. The greater part the mystery surrounds his wife, Jessica, and her family’s heritage. She believed her family was cursed. This curse would lead to Davenant’s death; a curse that also would be passed on to her children.
The curse of vampirism…
“The Boy of Blackstock” –
And I—for a brief moment I was able to see through the open door into the haunted room. And I was dimly conscious of a figure—that of a young man clad in garments of a bygone day, who stood smiling and bowing towards Lord Rystone, his hand upon his heart.
The ‘Mischievous Boy of Blackstock’ had fulfilled his destiny.
Vance and Dexter are called to investigate a “poultergeist” referred to as “The Ghost of Blackstock priory” or “The Mischievous Boy of Blackstock.” The haunting brings back old animosities between the Earl and the local populace, with the Earl crudely believing the people are conspiring to get him to leave.
After spending a single night in the supposedly haunted room, Vance informs Dexter that he has solved the mystery and it does not concern them or require their special talents. However, when the climactic moment arrives, nothing is as it seems.
“The Indissoluble Bond” –
He caught her hands in his, those gaunt bony hands, and I saw her tremble at his touch.
‘Our souls belong to each other, Beryl,’ he said. ‘They have belonged to each other through the long dark ages of the past, they will be in harmony through the infinite aeons of futurity. You are mine—shall I prove it to you?’
As he spoke his hands left hers and once more began to press the notes of the organ. Again that strange, weird harmony sprang into being—a call of spirit to spirit—and I could see that Beryl’s eyes were closing dreamingly; then suddenly, with a violent struggle, she seemed to recover herself. In her turn she seized the man’s hands and dragged them from the keyboard.
Then, panting, she closed the lid.
Vance and Dexter are asked to visit the country home of friends who are concerned over their daughter, Beryl—a no nonsense, athletic girl full of life. She seems to be under some form of psychic influence. Thus, Vance turns to Dexter’s clairvoyant skill to investigate. In a vision, Dexter sees Beryl approach a wasted man. The man, the town cathedral’s organist, gave his soul over to his music. The man states to Beryl that their souls are bound together forever.
When this wasted man dies, most believe his hold over Beryl died with him.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
“The Fear” –
“And that’s the worst of this hobby of ours,” he added, with a suggestion of sadness in his voice; “for people come to us, as Mr Belliston did, begging for our assistance, and thinking that by some strange mysterious power we can lay the ghosts, or what they are pleased to call the ghosts. But that’s just what we can’t do; we can only prove what has been proved hundreds of times before, that there are more things in heaven and earth than the human philosophy of the present day can understand.
“And again and again I find the same advice recurring—the advice which Somers has given us—the advice of one who has not had the experience of years such as I have had, but which is quite as good as any that I can give—destroy. And that, too, is the advice that applies to Camplin Castle.”
Vance and Dexter look into the reason behind why a wealthy man and his family quit their castle-home (upon which they spent a great deal to make livable) after only a month in residence. It was no ghost or spectral apparition but an overwhelming feeling of fear and dread that drove the family out.
After going there the next day and experiencing “the Fear” for themselves that night, Vance and Dexter realize the background to the castle would reveal the answer. A few days later, they uncover the dark past of the great house.
The authors, Alice and Claude Askew were married in 1900. Their first jointly authored novel was published in 1904. Throughout the years left to them, they would go on to publish over ninety novels, mostly via serials.
By 1915, and as special correspondents for the Daily Express, the couple found themselves attached to a British field hospital supporting allied Serbian military forces. In 1916, they would publish an account of their time as The Stricken Land: Serbia As We Saw It. Having spent lot of time in Serbia, their account was very sympathetic to the Serbian people.
The Askews story ended on the night of October 5-6, 1917.[i] They were both traveling on the Italian passenger steamer Città di Bari, traveling to Corfu, one of the Greek islands.
During the night, the vessel was struck by a torpedo from the German submarine, UB-48 and sank. Claude’s body was never found. Alice’s body was found three weeks later.
In striving to understand the evolution of Vance and Dexter through the tales, I found that central to each of the stories in this collection is love. Whether it is true love or a corrupted version, love provided the motivating energy in these psychic investigations. The first four tales were narrated by Aylmer Vance to Dexter. Since these tales occurred before Vance’s partnership with Dexter, more in-depth explanation was necessary. These tales were concerned more with melancholy and lost love. The second (and final) four tales were narrated (or recorded) by Dexter as part of being Vance’s recorder of investigations. The fifth and sixth stories in this collection result in somewhat happy endings with evil forces overcome; while the seventh and eighth tales detail Vance’s failures. Personally, I think these final two are the best of the collection.
To carrying the above discussion a little further, one of the traits of the tales I particularly favor is that sometimes Vance could not help all of those who sought his aid. Sometimes he fails and the failure results in tragic death or great misfortune. I am thinking in particular:
- In the second tale “The Stranger,” Vance could not even save his own ward from a tragic death on the eve of her marriage.
- In the seventh tale, “The Indissoluble Bond,” Vance was unable to prevent the pitiful death of a friend’s daughter. She died at her own wedding by the hands of an evil man turning into an evil spirit.
- In the eighth and final tale, The Fear,” Vance and Dexter uncover the mystery of this terror-inducing manor; though it does no good. Vance recommends that it be razed to the ground.
In conclusion, for me, the first story was a slow start leaving me dreading what was in store for me. Therefore, it was quite a surprise to me just how much I enjoyed this collection once I got into it.
It is interesting how I find myself more and more interested in the horror-fiction sub-genre of occult detective stories, particularly stories from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Based upon what I have read, I am nowhere near finished with this sub-genre as future posts of this blog will reveal.
Askew, Alice & Claude. The Adventures of Aylmer Vance. Black Heath Editions. 2018. Kindle Edition.
Contendo, William G., Phil Stephenson-Payne, eds. “Series List: Vance, Aylmer.” The FictionMags Index. 03 August 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/f/f333.htm#A8918
Reynolds, Josh. “The Nightmare Men: ‘The Ghost Seer.’” Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature. New Epoch Press. 01 October 2011. Web. 21 November 2018. https://www.blackgate.com/2011/10/01/the-nightmare-men-the-ghost-seer/
Verni, Nico. “4.10.1917, il triste epilogo del piroscafo Città di Bari.” La Voce Del Marinaio. 04 October 2016. Web. 14 November 2018. https://www.lavocedelmarinaio.com/2016/10/4-10-1917-il-triste-epilogo-del-piroscafo-citta-di-bari/
Wikipedia contributors. "Alice and Claude Askew." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_and_Claude_Askew
[i] Some sources say that it was the night of October 4-5, 1917.