When I originally posted this, I didn't realise that someone else had done a good job of covering it before. If I can find their thread, it might be nice to add it here.
Sphere, 1970. First published 1969
When Dudley Renton, Bishop of Lanchester, is killed by a hit-and-run driver outside his cathedral, it seems that the last obstacle to the opening of Martin Railstone’s 18th century tomb at Caswell Hall has been removed.
Railstone was a poet, author of The Inner Darkness, an artist and a scientist. Known as “Little Boy Blue” because of his skin, darkened by the dropsy, for 15 years before his death Railstone did not publish or permit a single canvas to be exhibited; but he was known to be hard at work following a line of scientific inquiry “so startling that it must be kept from the world till humanity was ready to receive it”.
The loyal members of The Adherents of Sir Martin Railstone and the Openers of the Caswell Tomb believe that the tomb is full of priceless works of art and scientific theses. Lord Marne’s friend Archdeacon Brownjohn has promised to open it when he's made Renton’s successor at Lanchester.
Unfortunately Brownjohn gets a better offer. And then Marne learns of the Cass River Scene – which will leave Caswell Hall submerged by a new reservoir.
Another of the Caswellites, George Banks, decides to find his own way into the tomb and has become a regular guest on guided tours of the house, which “seemed to crouch miserably in a hollow like some trapped animal waiting for the hunters to put an end to its tortured life”. When the other tourists are gone he begins to dig through the ancient wall. But when he breaks through to the vault, sealed for centuries, he touches something warm...
More to come...
Enjoyable so far, this one!
Caswell Hall, Nov. 21st. A sad return from London to find Kate three days dead and rotting in her bonds. In life she was a worthless vagrant and has proved as worthless a subject for my purpose. In future I must be more selective and seek only those with the exact physical requirements that have been given to me.
Nov. 22nd. Kate’s body is disposed of and my boy, Tom, has made pure the laboratory with sulphur. But the stench of decomposition still persists in the house to add to my sense of frustration.
William Norseman, the Dean of Lanchester, is a former military man, standing six foot three and weighing seventeen stones; known to colleagues as ‘The Bison’ he believes in evil and God and has no intention of allowing the Caswellites into the vault where Martin Railstone’s body and last works are entombed. Norseman has found a fragment of a diary, and it has convinced him that Railstone was a murderer and possibly in league with the devil.
Also present at a meeting between Norseman and the Caswellites are historian Mary Carlin and journalist John Wild. Mary’s researches have led her to suspect that possibly the tomb contains an ancient Christian relic - possibly the greatest one of all - stolen from Abbot Vulfrum’s medieval grave.
One of the Caswellites, Erich Beck, was acquitted by the Nuremberg tribunal for lack of evidence, but many believe that his work in the concentration camps had included horrible experiments to investigate the rapid decay of the brain’s cells when deprived of oxygen. Beck is fascinated by Railstone’s well-known mysterious resurgence of physical and mental powers that had allowed him to suddenly produce so much work in his last years of life. Some of Railstone’s poetry and notes suggest that he had knowledge of micro-organisms long before Pasteur and Lister. Beck is afraid that what lies in the tomb might not be treasure.
When Norseman refuses to allow the Caswellites to enter, they have no recourse but to try to find the none-existent descendant who Railstone had insanely referred to in his will “...my body and my works must lie undisturbed till a red-haired woman of my blood and my two physical infirmities is found to claim them.”
But impossibly, she is found; and Norseman, with Mary Carlin and John Wild, enters the tomb – Norseman is determined to destroy any evil there before the Caswellites can retrieve it.
But in one of the most grotesque scenes of violence in print...
Nancy Leame has been in and out of hospitals and mental asylums all her life. Red-haired, a sufferer of dropsy and sharing the same skin complaint as her ancestor, she is no beauty; but now she feels like a queen as the time approaches when she will come into her inheritance, Caswell Hall and the treasures of her ancestor’s tomb.
In one of the most grotesque scenes of violence in print, the Dean of Lanchester has been impaled by a bronze phallus when he attempts to break into the tomb. His attempt to destroy the evil there has failed, and now Nancy Leame bends to kiss the mummified face of Martin Railstone, as if believing that the lines of his poems will come literally true and he will wake like a sleeping prince.
And there is a relic in the tomb; a strange chalice that Mary Carlin believes might be the Grail itself. But before she has time to investigate it, a new threat invades the place where she and Nancy Leame are spending an exhausted night. Until now the novel has walked the boards of a gothic horror stage with grave robbing, madness, murder and lunatic Nazi concentration camp experiments.
Now the story moves into Hammer X The Unknown territory. Something terrible has been seen escaping Nancy Leame’s bungalow and disappearing into the rain, and soon isolated victims are meeting horrible deaths. The army is called in, but the moving carpet of evil cannot be contained.
Once Blackburn has introduced the X the Unknown menace, he brings the novel fairly quickly to an end, but he does nonetheless paint some memorable scenes of barely glimpsed horrors as it moves across the countryside. I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this novel after so long, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and hereby nominate it for the Vault of Evil’s highest award - a ‘Kevin’! ;D
Later, after some thought: Beginning to have doubts about this award... maybe a Charles Black sock puppet to put on the mantle instead, perhaps?
That will be Holger and the thread - quite a lively one, too - can be found here
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
Thanks, Dem'. You're right about the thread. It's an example of the old Vault at its best. And as I haven't seen Holger log in recently, I've taken the liberty of reproducing the entire thread here.
Great cover, and from what I've read of him, a great writer too. I've not got this one and sadly I no longer have his Countess Bathory novel, "Our Lady Of Pain", but he's had at least another three excellent novels: "A Scent Of New Mown Hay", "Devil Daddy" and "Children Of The Night". The latter has a village plagued by the spetacularly diseased and rotting corpses of an obscure Religious sect who plan to bring about the end of the world.
He's no slouch at short horror stories either, and you'll find references to some in the Hugh Lamb section ("Star Books of Horror"), Holger.
"Was Sir Martin Railstone - eighteenth-century painter, scientist, historian, prophet, and libertine - a monster or a saint? Was he a remarkable Renaissance man whose advanced biological research was misunderstood by his contemporaries or a murderous fiend whose very touch meant death? Why did the Church of England bar the opening of his crypt under decaying Caswell Hall? And what relics could it hold that would goad members of the small but influential Railstone cult to commit murder? Not until George banks, Railstone's most fanatic disciple, fled from the tomb he had just rifled - only to die in agony just after shrieking, "Something's alive in there" - did anyone suspect the rampaging horror that had lain dormant for two centuries. A horror that required human sacrifice to stamp out."
Definitely sounds like one for the ever-growing list...
"Children Of The Night". The latter has a village plagued by the spetacularly diseased and rotting corpses of an obscure Religious sect who plan to bring about the end of the world.>.
I'll be Blind Dead if that doesn't strike a chord with me .
Nice find Holger - really dig (geddit) the cover to BHD - looks like there is more to life than NEL .. hmm did I *really* say that ?
Shirley a mishtake.
I have a hard cover copy of this novel (no dust jacket, alas). Think I might have at least one other JB title knocking about. I can't actually remember reading this, but then there are plenty of books I've read but have no recollection of doing so these days
Franklin Marsh wrote:
Another blinder! The 'Sphere Occult' label does it for me! Is Anthony Cheetham still alive? He was a big cheese at Sphere - we really should track him down and ask him what went on there.
Holger's review:Thanks to your positive comments about the autor I put this on top of my reading pile and, boy, was I glad I did.
This is the discovery of the year for me! The best book I've read in ages! A page turner if ever there was one! Absolutely unputdownable! I gotta read more from that guy! How come I never heard of him? He should be a successful multi-millionaire author living in his own Playboy mansion! (OK, I just noticed that he died in 1993.) Anyone care to raise money to turn this into a film? In one word: Wow!!!
The book can best be described as a Da Vinci Code for the 1960s/70s (the book was first published in 1969; this edition is from 1970) with a general dollop of creepy horror moments. We have centuries old art mysteries, the search for the Holy Grail, an alien invasion, a sympathetic Nazi war criminal, a flame throwing Dean with a collection of war memorabilia, contracted IRA killers, a treasure hunt in a mysterious tomb full of mechanical traps and much much more.
In the small town of Lanchester a group of citizens are attempting to get a vault opened up in their local Cathedral that contains the remains of infamous painter/writer/scientist Sir Martin Railstone. Railstone was a mediocre talent who dabbled in occult practices and during the last years of his life allegedly managed to obtain knowledge that was far ahead of his time. His final writings and art work - rumoured to be far superior to anything he had previously created - were buried with him with instructions that only a direct female descendant of his should be allowed to open it up again. A race against time ensues when the authorities decide to drown the entire area including the cathedral at the bottom of a newly devised reservoir.
Blackburn is one hell of a story teller who has the rare knack of being able to create memorable characters in a pulp environment. He generously weaves passages of Railstone's writings into the novel and successfully manages to establish the life of a fictitious historical character including references not only to his books and art work, but also to a whole stream of secondary - and of course equally fictitious! - writings about the writings: articles, criticism and biographical information about this Renaissance man. He does it so well that I actually had to google his name to convince myself that this was not in actual fact based on a real historical figure. (It wasn't!)
Blackburn also seems to know a thing or two about politics. On the one hand we have a motley crue of Railstone fanatics who attempt to get the tomb opened; on the other hand we have the guardians of the vault, local church members who are opposed to this very idea as well as councillors who are planning a new water reservoir at the very spot. Although the novel starts off with the murder of a clergyman, for the biggest part the suspense in the book comes from the shifting balances of power, the political and clerical conspiracies and the often unlikely alliances between colourful individuals.
The first two thirds of the book are an intriguing treasure hunt. Once the pieces of this historical puzzle are carefully put together, the story makes way for a more traditional horror/Sci Fi approach with strange creatures unleashed in the English countryside that not even the Army seems to be able to battle.
In case I haven't said it often enough yet, but if you ever come across this book, grab it right away, call in a sickie for work, disconnect your telephone, put your legs up and enjoy one of the best reads you are ever likely to come across.
Marvellous review that, Holger, and thanks very much for sharing it with us. This sounds very much like Blackburn playing to his strengths so I doubt very much you'll be disappointed with his other horror novels.
Something akin to the power struggle between the "Railstone fanatics", the council and the church occurs in "Children Of The Night" too (which, now I think of it, shares certain plot similarities with Ramsey Campbell's "Ancient Images").
Franklin Marsh wrote:
Farky Nell! ' A flame throwing Dean'?!? Holger you've already elevated this to the dizzy heights of a VOE classic without even trying. Pure genius!
Incidentally, I picked up another Blackburn book at the same time as Bury Him Darkly and Children of the Night. Broken Boy is ostensibly a cold war thriller with a crazed sex killer thrown in.