Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger, Together Again: The Vril Agenda by Derrick Ferguson and Josh Reynolds

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Vril Agenda-smallOne of the first things I did when I landed at the Windy City Pulp and Paper show on Friday was make a beeline for the Airship 27 booth.

Time is finite and the Windy City Dealer’s room is vast, and to make sure you get the treasures you really want, it helps to be a little determined. The treasures I really wanted this year included B.C. Bell’s 1930’s pulp vigilante novel, Tales of the Bagman, which I wrote about enthusiastically in my report on last year’s show, and Jim Beard’s supernatural detective collection, Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker — both of which are published by Airship 27Plus, I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to look over their whole table, since it’s always piled high with a tantalizing array of new titles.

As proprietor Ron Fortier happily sold me those two volumes, I casually mentioned that I’d first heard of Sgt. Janus via Josh Reynolds’s splendid Nightmare Men column, published at the fabulous Black Gate website… which, coincidentally, I happened to run, did I mention? Without missing a beat, Ron pointed out one of the many titles on his table, saying, “Josh is a terrific guy. That’s his latest book, a new pulp adventure, right there.”

I was suitably astounded. Here I was, trying to impress Ron by name-dropping Josh Reynolds, and he was able to produce a novel I didn’t even know existed! I know when I’ve been one-upped. Besides, I’ve known Josh as a terrific writer for years, so it was a thrill to discover he’d written a pulp adventure novel.

The Vril Agenda was co-written by Derrick Ferguson, author of Dillon and the Voice of Odin. Derrick does a terrific job of relating how the book came about on his blog and I think I’ll turn it over to him:

It got into my melon of a head a particular obsession to have Dillon be trained in various disciplines by the great pulp champions of the past. Since Dillon is a spiritual son of those heroes, I always thought it would be a gas for him to seek out some of these men and women to learn what they know…  Of course I knew I couldn’t use The Big Three by name. I’m talking about Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger. But I could allude to them…

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The Nightmare Men: “The Phantom Fighter”

Saturday, June 1st, 2013 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

adventuresdegrandin‘He was…rather under medium height, but with military erectness of carriage that made him seem several inches taller than he actually was. His light blue eyes were small and exceedingly deep set and would have been humorous had it not been for the curiously cold directness of their gaze. With his blonde moustache waxed at the ends in two perfectly horizontal points and those twinkling, stock taking eyes, he reminded me of an alert tom-cat.’

Such is the stout Dr. Trowbridge’s description of Jules de Grandin, late of Paris, the Surete, and the Sorbonne, upon first meeting the irascible little French physician in the 1925 story, “Terror on the Links”.  Cat-eyed and ebullient, de Grandin is the epitome of the phrase ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.’ He defends Harrisonville, New Jersey, and by extension, all of mankind, against the spawn of Satan, using forbidden knowledge and firearms alike.

Jules de Grandin and his ever-present companion, Dr. Trowbridge, were created in 1925 by Seabury Quinn for Weird Tales and went on to feature in close to a hundred stories, with the last, “The Ring of Bastet”, appearing in 1951. Quinn, in the introduction to the 1976 Popular Library collection, The Adventures of Jules de Grandin, says that de Grandin is ‘…a sort of literary combination of Topsy and Minerva, that is, he just growed.’

It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise, given the sheer vibrancy of de Grandin from the start. De Grandin, like his more passive predecessor Dr. Hesselius, is a physician, and approaches the supernatural as an illness to be confronted. Unlike the kindly Hesselius, however, de Grandin is no amiable general practitioner, but a surgeon — flamboyant, precise, and ruthless.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Blind Man”

Sunday, December 30th, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

weird-tales-march-1944-small‘…an elderly man who wore his hair long and white…a firm, almost prognathus chin, half-pursed lips and a strong Roman nose. His eyes were not visible at all, for he wore dark glasses with shields which prevented one from seeing his eyes even from the side.’

Such is our first glimpse of Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, late of Arkham, late of the distant star Celaeno, and the Hyades in the 1944 story, “The House on Curwen Street”.  Blind, and yet all-seeing, Shrewsbury stands between humanity and Lovecraft’s nightmarish god-things, employing weapons both material and supernatural in the world’s defense.

Created in 1944 by August Derleth for a series of interlinked stories set firmly in the dark universe of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos — a term coined by Derleth himself — Shrewsbury was far from the standard Lovecraftian protagonist. With his incantations and machinations, he is at first glance the antithesis of the hapless antiquarians and artists who populate both the original stories and many of the pastiches that came after.

“They are at the mouth of the Miskatonic now. But I am ready.”

-Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, “The House on Curwen Street”

Shrewsbury is far more active than his predecessors, who are, in most cases, passive victims of the horrors they encounter. Unlike John Kirowan, who has seen the audient void and been frightened by it into a haunted and semi-reclusive retirement, Shrewsbury is more akin to Titus Crow—he is an active combatant in a war in which humanity is, at best, a pawn, and at worst, food for the titanic forces at play.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Spirit-Breaker”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

januscvr2‘His eyes were icy verdigris, but warm also, and piercing — in a kind way. He was dressed smartly in a long coat of an almost military cut and dark pants with gold piping.’ So writes the narrator of the 2012 story, “The Portobello Cetacean” as she first lays eyes on her host, Sgt. Roman Janus, late of Mount Airy, the man known as the ‘spirit-breaker’.

Created in 2012 by Jim Beard, Janus is equal parts Carnacki, Aylmer Vance, and John Silence, and was intentionally crafted as equal parts homage and successor to those earlier Edwardian occultists.

Like Silence, Janus is less a two-fisted hero than an agent of a higher spiritual power, doling out harsh justice and due kindness with equal determination.  And like Aylmer Vance, Janus’s kind-hearted nature is both a boon and a weakness, helping him at times and hindering him at others.

“I am Roman Janus. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

–Sgt. Roman Janus, “The Portobello Cetacean” (2012)

Janus first appeared in the aforementioned 2012 story, “The Portobello Cetacean,” which is the first story in the collection, Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker. As with all of the stories in the collection, Janus is seen solely from the perspective of the narrator—in this case, a distraught, devil-haunted young woman. The perception of Janus changes with each story, from hero to conman, from saviour to sinister Svengali, depending on the narrator’s bias.

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The Nightmare Men: “Master By Name, Master By Number”

Saturday, October 6th, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

‘He was impossible to miss. Tall in his dark suit, with his leonine head and imposing looks, he would have seemed prominent in any crowd…’ Such is the description of Titus Crow, delivered by his amanuensis and friend, Henri-Laurent De Marigny in the opening pages of the 1977 story, “The Viking’s Stone”. Created in 1971 by author Brian Lumley, the character was crafted in the tradition of other occult investigators, such as John Silence or Carnacki; Crow was an avowed agent of good, his struggles all the more impressive for occurring as they did in the harsh, nihilistic universe created by HP Lovecraft.

“Titus Crow?” said Arnold. “Yes, well, we’ve all had reason to fear him in our time…”

-Geoffrey Arnold, “The Black Recalled” (1983)

thecompleatcrowTitus Crow first appeared in Lumley’s 1971 story, “The Caller of the Black”. Crow’s credentials as a psychic sleuth and occult investigator are impressively vetted in the story, as he defeats both mortal and immortal enemies through the cunning application of the standard Lovecraftian eldritch lore, a shower faucet and a window pole. From the outset, it is clear that Crow inhabits the same deadly universe as Inspector Legrasse or John Kirowan, where elder entities prey on a mostly unaware human population; but unlike the former, Crow is well-armed against such entities and, unlike the latter, he’s quite happy to test himself against their machinations out of  simple heroism.

Schooled in a wealth of occult lore and possessed of an innate desire to confront evil, Crow is seemingly destined from birth to pit himself against the abominable. Indeed the 1987 story, “Inception” concerns the weird circumstances of Crow’s birth and baptism and the battle between Good and Evil which revolves around the latter. Too, the occult numerology behind the date and hour of that special birth comes into play more than once, as those numbers show Crow to be a Master Magus, a fact which puts a spanner into more than one opponent’s scheme.

In “The Lord of the Worms” (1983), Crow’s early career working for the British War Department in World War Two is mentioned, during which he worked to foil Hitler’s occult machinations. His destruction of the eponymous entity is his first step on the road which leads to his first ‘official’ case as an occult investigator in “The Caller of the Black”, wherein he confronts the villainous sorcerer Gedney and the nightmarish entity known only as ‘The Black’.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Enemy of Evil”

Monday, February 20th, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

JohnThunstoneManly Wade Wellman is responsible for the creation of a number of supernatural sleuths, occult detectives and werewolf punchers, including Judge Pursuivant. But, arguably one of the more well-known of Wellman’s coterie of heroes is John Thunstone. Big and blocky, with a well-groomed moustache and eyes like flint, Thunstone is an implacable and self-described ‘enemy of evil’. He hunts it with the verve of a Van Helsing and strikes with the speed and viciousness that puts Anton Zarnak to shame.

Well read and well-armed against vampires, werewolves and all things dark and devilish, Thunstone seeks out malevolent occult menaces in a variety of locales. The sixteen stories and two novels have settings which range from the steel and glass corridors of Manhattan to the mountains of the rural South, or the pastoral fields of England. He faces off against Inuit sorcerers, demonic familiars and worse things in the name of protecting the Earth and all its peoples from the hungry shapes in the dark that would otherwise devour it and them.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Haunted Wanderer”

Friday, January 27th, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

thumb_john_kirowanWhile Robert E. Howard is perhaps best known for creating Conan, he had his share of occult investigators of one stripe or another. There was Steve Harrison of River Street, Solomon Kane with his fiery Puritanism and cat-headed ju-ju staff and, of course, John Kirowan.

Kirowan is of an age and appearance with a number of Howard’s other characters, being tall, slender, brooding, and black haired — a Celt of the modern age. Sorrow hangs about him like a shroud, and his history is tragic. Though few agree on what form said tragedy might have taken, all believe that it has something to do with the years that he spent studying the occult arts in the black hills on Hungary and the secret places of Inner Mongolia.

What is known for certain is that Kirowan renounced these studies, and assumed the guise of a sceptic. But, when the nightmarish denizens of diabolical realms intrude upon the lives of his friends and companions, John Kirowan shows his true colours, and the haunted wanderer once more thrusts himself between the innocent and the devils in the dark.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Supernatural Sleuth”

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

941723-lLin Carter’s Anton Zarnak is a man of mystery. With a jagged streak of silver running through his black hair from his temple to the base of his skull and his exotic features and peculiar mannerisms, Zarnak is almost as outré as the enemies he fights. With a startling knowledge and a somewhat sinister history, Zarnak battled evil in three stories penned by Carter — “Curse of the Black Pharaoh”, “Dead of Night”, and “Perchance to Dream” — as well as in a half dozen or so more contributed by the likes of Robert M. Price, CJ Henderson, Joseph S. Pulver Sr. And James Chambers. All of these stories, for those interested, are collected in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth from Marietta Publishing.

Like the pulp characters Carter based him on, Zarnak is something of a Renaissance man. Educated at a number of prestigious universities, including the Heidelberg (where he studied theology with a certain Anton Phibes, according to “The Case of the Curiously Competent Conjurer” by James Ambuehl and Simon Bucher-Jones), the Sorbonne and Miskatonic University, he is an accredited physician, musician, theologian and metaphysicist. He speaks eleven languages and has one of the finest and most complete collections of occult literature in existence. His home drifts like a soap bubble between Half-Moon Street in London, No. 13 China Alley in San Francisco and a cursed apartment building in New York; always decorated in oriental splendour, it is filled to bursting with esoteric paraphernalia, including a hideously decorated mask of Yama which always hangs in a place of honour above Zarnak’s desk.

And, as the saying goes, ‘so a man’s home, his mind’ — Zarnak is the proverbial odd duck. By turns consoling and caustic, arrogant and affectionate, and almost inhumanly ruthless, Zarnak is no comforting Judge Pursuivant or soothing John Silence. He is singularly and irrepressibly Zarnak.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Judge”

Saturday, October 8th, 2011 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

fearful-rock-other-precarious-locales-selected-stories-manly-wade-wellman-hardcover-cover-artA man of great height and greater girth, Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant, after retiring from the bench, devoted his golden years to investigating the occult in the works of North Carolina author, Manly Wade Wellman. Pursuivant, with his broad bulbous nose and protruding, warm eyes, was one of a half-dozen occult investigators created by Wellman over the course of his career, though the Judge has the distinction of being the first, and, in many ways, the most important of the lot.

Pursuivant made his first appearance in Weird Tales in 1938, in the story, “The Hairy Ones Shall Dance”, wherein the Judge faced off against a werewolf. He appeared in Weird Tales three more times from 1938 to 1941, in “The Black Drama”, “The Dreadful Rabbits”, and “The Half-Haunted”, respectively facing off with a vampiric Lord Byron, demon-rabbits and ghosts. All of these stories have been anthologized on a number of occasions, and have all been collected in the 2001 Nightshade Books collection Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales.

Besides the aforementioned four tales, Pursuivant appeared as a supporting character in a number of Wellman’s other stories, including his Silver John novel, The Hanging Stones, where he aids John the Balladeer, another of Wellman’s occult investigators, in combating a tribe of inbred, druidic werewolves. And, even if he doesn’t appear, Pursuivant is likely mentioned…indeed, the Judge looms over Wellman’s other occult investigators like a guardian angel, wielding knowledge, wit and wisdom in support of humanity’s more active defenders.

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The Nightmare Men: “The Ghost-Seer”

Saturday, October 1st, 2011 | Posted by Josh Reynolds

9781840225396Aylmer Vance, agent of the enigmatic Ghost Circle, made his first appearance on the nightmare stage in 1914. The creation of husband-and-wife writing team Alice and Claude Askew, Vance appeared in eight consecutive issues of The Weekly Tale-Teller between July and August. The stories-“The Invader”, “The Stranger”, “Lady Green-Sleeves”, “The Fire Unquenchable”, “The Vampire”, “The Boy of Blackstock”, “The Indissoluble Bond” and “The Fear”-ranged from grotesque to gentle, and are, by and large, of a slower pace than those featuring Vance’s contemporaries, such as Carnacki. Only one of the stories has been regularly anthologized (“The Vampire”), with the rest languishing in obscurity until the release of recent collections by Ash-Tree Press and Wordsworth Editions respectively.

Like John Silence, Vance inhabits an England of soft spiritual influence, where elementals, ancient memories and ghostly manifestations cling to the unseen corners and visit just long enough to inject the mundane with a booster shot of the strange. Unlike Carnacki’s Outer Monstrosities and Malign Visitors, the apparitions that Vance faces are utterly human in their aspect, if not their motivation. Death is no barrier to the desires of the flesh or the dreams of the determined, and it is when these elements intrude on the hard-won peace of the Edwardian mind that the Ghost-Seer must intervene.

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