The Vampires of Finistere by Peter Saxon (Rex Dolphin)
First published 1970; this Five Star edition 1972
Thanks to Andy Boot for his article in Paperback Fanatic for the author information.
During a visit to Normandy, Nicholas Brooke’s fiancée has been abducted, and The Guardians are his last hope of finding her – if she’s still alive. Before they’d gone to Brittany, Margot’s father had taken Nicholas aside, informed him that Margot was a virgin and demonstrated what he would do to Nicholas if he failed to bring her home ‘intact’ by crushing a large piece of coal in his bare hands. Nicholas and Margot had been exploring an off-the-map village when they found themselves caught up in some peculiar carnival.
The carnival had eventually led to a place where weird and obscenely-shaped stones rose above the village and men dressed to resemble skeletons had danced around a fire. As the celebrations reach their height, the Green Wolf had appeared and the carnival took on the nature of a pagan rite. During the increasingly bawdy revels, Nicholas sees Margot being taken into the trees by the wolf. When he awakes, it’s to find himself on a bleak hillside, with no people around him – and no Margot.
No one believes his story of the strange village, but some hint that he should seek out The Guardians. Only they can help him.
So Nicholas seeks out the house on Half Moon street.
Inside the house, Father Dyball, a former Anglo-Catholic priest, asks him if he believes in evil. Stephen Kane, Lionel Marks and Anne Ashby are also in attendance. The sexual chemistry between Kane and Anne is tense. He is not sure that he actually likes her, but he seems to be jealous of her rather ambiguous relationship with the elderly, goatee-bearded Gideon Cross. Cross is the founder of The Guardians and his presence seems to loom over the house in Half Moon Street like a gigantic spider.
It’s determined that Kane will set out to Normandy to explore the region where the girl disappeared. But as his small boat hugs the coast, it’s caught in rip tides and capsized, and he’s only saved by the intervention of a fishing smack captained by the black bearded Yves Lenoir.
Kane notices the bookshelves in Lenior’s cabin.
The Captain explains: “Fiction, all of them... James Bond, in English too; Maigret, Dennis Wheatley, Alistair Maclean, Harold Robbins. The bloody trouble is they’ve got to be mostly English, because you and the Americans have got the only good writers.”
When they berth at Trégonnec, a harbour master named Henri Verne clears his papers. But even before he steps ashore Kane has already learned something strange about Trégonnec – that no-one ever visits there twice.
Stephen Kane eats his first meal since the shipwreck, a bowl of Mère Kermac’s bouillabaisse, in the kitchen of the Poisson d’Or, but is distracted by a glimpse of something outside the window – smaller than a man but larger than a dog - with swirling hair. After an evening spent in the bar with Yves Lenoir, he explores the village and sees a wolf. Then, when he comes to a ruined building behind the inn, he sees someone moving about in his upstairs room and is attacked by a second man on the ground. The men run away when something with swirling hair approaches in the dark.
The next day Kane learns that the mysterious figure is a woman of the village, an outcast, filthy and hungry. The people of the village say that she’s ‘touched’ and seem to regard her as incurable, though she responds quickly enough to Kane’s kindness.
Kane learns from a woman in the village that the girl’s name is Claire and that she had fallen into her present condition two years before. But when he visits the local church and meets the landlord of the village, Hubert de Caradec, the man tells him that Claire became destitute when her home burned down a year ago. What happened in the missing year?
Is it possible that she be became one of the brides of the Green Wolf cult?
Various references made to the cult are, incidentally, mentioned as being recorded in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer does indeed give some space to this cult and its existence in parts of France and Brittany. Writing in the 1920’s, Frazer recorded that “In the Vosges it is still customary to kindle bonfires upon the hill-tops on Midsummer Eve.” The flames were believed to encourage the growth of the crops and, in some cases, a new leader of the village was chosen. Essentially this appears to have happened at Trégonnec in this story, although Margot Prys was abducted on Walpurgisnacht, April 30th.
Searching for a clue to the disappearance of Margot Prys in Trégonnec, Stephen Kane has befriended the mute outcast Claire. Learning that he plans a visit to the sinisterly-named Ile des Morts, she tries to warn him away.
On the island he meets the sensual and evil Ahes, a centuries-old evil thing in a young girl’s body, who seduces him and tries to send him to his doom in a submerged town, then transforms herself monstrously and tries to destroy him. Wolves enter the fray and now Stephen finds himself riding in a landau sent by Hubert de Caradec, the landlord of the village, approaching the ancient, towered chateau.
De Caradec and his hooded and silent wife are the Karnsteins from Captain Cronos in all but name, so it’s no surprise that dinner is barely over before De Caradec is planning a little repast of his own, not given on the menu.
He plans to eat bits of Steven Kane.
The story is now approaching its denouement, with a public lynching and a burial on the agenda – but not necessarily in that order - wolf packs, a steamy seduction, a return from the dead, a fierce battle and several murders.
But you don’t want me to tell you all of it.
I finished reading this sitting in front of the fire this evening while the daylight faded. I hadn’t been sure if I’d like it; I hadn’t read a Peter Saxon novel since Through the Dark Curtain in the late Sixties (according to Andy Boot’s article, that one was actually written by by Ross Richards). But Vampires of Finistere has been an enjoyable read. Severance points out here that this adventure is pretty much a solo outing for Kane; it's true that the other Guardians hardly get a look-in. But I think that works well.
Rex Dolphin’s writing has a light touch - and he seemed to enjoy his Peter Saxon incarnation. Andy Boot wrote: "The emphasis here is on thrilling action... This was Dolphin's strength." (Paperback Fanatic # 6 )
Finished this last night. Ludicrous plot and characters, but entertaining enough. And a fast and easy read, which is a plus. Am I right in thinking this is generally thought one of the best in the "Guardians" series? Anyway, I'm glad I read it but won't be going out of my way to find the others.
Post by Gaspard du Nord on Aug 1, 2013 2:17:38 GMT
Another very late answer: Yes, this is generally thought of around the horror websites and blogs as being one of the best Guardians books, if not the.
Rex Dolphin was one of that small team of authors, including Martin Thomas, Wilfred McNeilly and Stephen Frances, on whose talents editor W. Howard Baker was able to call when he set up his Press Editorial Services after Fleetway had given up publishing the Sexton Blake novels. The authors just named were all more than capable wordsmiths. For various reasons, they seem to have lacked the something or other that should have given them access to the publishing world -- whether it was their geographical isolation, a tendency to argue points in long letters, or just plain untidiness and poor personal presentation/drinking habits.
Bill Baker was no saint himself, but he had a roguish charm and a propensity for wheeling and dealing shown by his ability to steer books through edition after edition with one publishing house after another as well as his own Howard Baker Publishers Limited.
The kind of deals he made with writers, even in his Fleetway days, have been open to criticism elsewhere. I've read he bought outright from their original authors all rights to the Guardians books published as "by Peter Saxon". I suspect the part played by Baker was largely as catalyst and co-ordinator and only partially as creator. With none of the parties any longer with us, it's doubtful whether sufficient clarity could be reached on the rights situation for the books to be reissued or the Guardians series to be continued by contemporary authors.
You would also have thought the multiple editions published in the late '60s/early '70s would have made supply adequate in the used books market to meet any demand today at modest prices. Alas, that isn't so. I've just taken delivery of a slim, Howard Baker hardcover copy of The Vampires of Finistere. It was the cheapest copy I could find (my budget is limited) but it was still comparatively expensive in days when dark fantasy eBooks priced at a ridiculous 99 cents or 77 pence (like Witchery: A Duo of Weird Tales) are passed over, presumably as too expensive, by horror fans. (Does this mean you?) Luckily, my copy of Vampires did not cost me the $56.98 currently being asked for a paperback copy by online charity bookseller Better World Books in the US!
I wonder if Rex Dolphin is turning in his grave? I know he never made any big money from his writing for Howard Baker. When Dolphin's widow and family were approached by a well-known pulps historian, they were so disenchanted with Dolphin's career as a novelist that they told him in no uncertain terms his interest was unwelcome.
Rex Dolphin was writing horror fiction long before "Peter Saxon" or even his SBL entries like The Devil to Pay. In July 1954 he had a short story published in the venerable Weird Tales magazine. You can read Off the Map FREE online, or you can find it in the monster 1988 Weird Tales anthology edited by Marvin Kaye. In an introduction, Kaye calls it "a gem"; it's a pity such taste has abandoned Kaye in the editing of his current reincarnation of WT.
Dolphin was an accountant by profession and at one time the treasurer of the British Crime Writers' Association. Back in the early 1960s, I was invited to drive out and meet him at his outer suburban home in Amersham, Bucks. I found Dolphin, then and later, a very non-assertive person, which may have been for him the particular reason he needed to be in the Press Editorial Services web. To my knowledge, the work he would have done as Peter Saxon on The Vampires of Finistere wouldn't have needed any "rewriting" by Baker or George P. Mann.
So that's what Rex Dolphin was like! Martin Thomas, Wilfred MacNeilly et al have had more written about them, so it was great to find out some more about Dolphin, who was a shadowy figure on the Press Ed margin. At the risk of pumping you for information, what do you know about James Stagg and Warwick Jardine? Fringe Blake writers about who I know nothing, and have found out little (well, bugger all actually). And do you know the truth about the Flann O'Brien/Blake link? He always claimed to have written Blakes, but rhere was no record anyone could find EXCEPT that there were two titles published pseudonymously, by an Irishman, one of which heavily featured a policeman and a bicycle (which O'Brien lovers will recognise as a motif in both the Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive). I have read that they were actually the work of an Irish peer who wished to remain anonymous, and also that the chronically insecure O'Brien tried to bolster his CV as a professional writer by claiming titles he didn't have. It was the subject of a 'Without Walls' C4 doc in the nineties with Driff and Moorcock amongst others, but with no real conclusion.
Baker did seem to specialise in gathering writers who had talent but personalities that made them 'awkward' in some way for the mainstream. For all their faults, Frances, Thomas, MacNeilly and especially Jack Trevor Story were immensely talented writers who could also produce to order, which is a knack dismissed by literary idiots who equate this with hacking and believe in the ridiculous romantic Victorian notion of 'the artist'. These being the same people who then moan when their current darling takes ten years to produce a slim novel of a quality someone like JTS could have knocked out in a month. It's easy to knock his creative accounting approach to business, and indeed I've expressed some doubts before now, but the bottom line, as JTS once said, was that you got paid, rely on it, if you turned the work in. It just might not have been the figure you'd been told...
Post by Gaspard du Nord on Aug 1, 2013 8:57:08 GMT
James Stagg was one of Baker's earliest editorial staff members on the New Look SBLs that began in 1956. I think he was eventually transferred to another editorial position on the AP/Fleetway schoolgirls' publications. He wrote some good early New Look Blakes, but not Panic in the Night -- that was Jacques Pendower aka veteran crime writer T. C. H. Jacobs, despite what it said on the cover.
How did that happen?
Well, the AP bosses of the day were somewhat alarmed by the more "adult" direction in which the SBL was heading after Baker had taken over the editorial reins, although even back before World War II the series had never been a wholly juvenile publication. The two numbers for March 1957, the Peter Saxon book Scandal Street and Stagg's real Panic in the Night were both withdrawn, but the cover for the latter was kept, perhaps because the production work on it had already been done and insufficient time was left for two substitute covers. (Homicide Blues, the first Desmond Reid book, replaced Scandal Street and was given its own cover.)
Stagg's book, which I don't think ever appeared in any form, sounded really interesting from the blurbs that had announced it:
"There was the sound of a rushing wind, the crackle of flames, and the forces of evil were all around her. All that was sacred they derided -- and she was their innocent victim! Sexton Blake and Canon Synn pit their strength against the bestial practitioners of Black Magic in the heart of the peaceful English countryside."
Later, Stagg's contributions as an author dropped away, although I believe at least one was published as "by Desmond Reid" and the last couple came out with the byline "Gilbert Johns". The explanation given by Baker was that, like himself, Stagg no longer wrote as a freelancer for the company's publications because a change in policy meant it was frowned upon by management. The higher-ups thought writing for your own or a fellow editor's publications, even if it was in your own time, was a system open to abuse. (Maybe it was, but who better to know what was needed than the people on the spot?) The Gilbert Johns books apparently were sold to Fleetway through a friendly art agency (the Kellihers' Temple) to conceal the author's identity, not that it was much of a smokescreen since Stagg's real name was John Gilbert Stagg. He eventually retired to Devon where he died in 1996, aged 78.
Although I'm familiar with, and have a couple of, his SBLs, I know even less about Warwick Jardine (1902-1975), other than that he was writing SBLs long before the Baker era, to which he contributed but one, that his real name was apparently Francis Warwick, and I think his father had also been an AP writer or editor. Your OBBC friends would surely have more info. Actually I expect I have, too, tucked away in old Collectors' Digests. One day I might be able to find the time to hunt them out.
Death Her Destination (SBL No. 483) was originally slated to be a "Desmond Reid" since it had been through the usual Baker-Mann rewrite mill. But Baker was persuaded by his new editorial assistant of the time, who had been offered the position partly on the strength of his fan articles in CD, to put the book out as a "Warwick Jardine". The suggestion was that it might pull back into the readership fold a few old-timers who had fond memories of the author's past successes.
Flann O'Brien? A policeman and a bicycle? No bells ring, I'm afraid, bicycle or other. I can tell you that the original of Murderer's Rock (SBL No.478 by Desmond Reid, June '61, blurb beginning "At last comes the long-awaited Irish novel...") was an early Blake from Wilfred McNeilly. "Set against a background which is wholly Irish in motive and atmosphere..."
Thanks for those links, Gaspar - I would have lovd to have been working back in those days, as I could have happily toiled for Fleetway/AP despite the money (though it could be good if you wrote quick enough, I guess). Scary to see those CD's were fifty years back - a lot of the names I knew as very old people or by repute when I joined the LOBBC and I think that's the only one of the clubs left, limping along. It lost its heart for me when a few of the gentlemen passed on, and I think only Ray Hopkins is left stranding, and even then only occasionally now as he must be 90! But it was good to solve the Warwick Jardine mystery at last, and explains also why his fourth series Blake seems oddly old-fashioned next to most of them.
I wonder if the Flann O'Brien mystery will ever be solved? Personally, I don't think it was him, and he just used the coincidence to bolster his reputation when retirement and the prospect of full-time writing came around. When you consider how his reputation has grown over the last 40/50 years, having to claim suprious Blakes and romance novels to bolster his CV for finding a publisher is incredibly sad. 'At Swim Two Birds' is in Penguin classics, and if Graham Greene hadn't reportedly dissuaded the publishers from rejecting 'The Third Policeman' as the follow-up (which is an incredible book) then who knows how his career would have shaped?
Better to be a Fleetway hack on a wage than an artist being screwed over and stuck in an office job you hate, in my book.