AYLMER VANCE: GHOST-SEER (1914) by Alice and Claude Askew

Askew_Aylmer-Vance_wordsworthThis collection, combining crime and the paranormal, was by the husband-and-wife team of Alice and Claude Askew, both of whom perished when their passenger ship was torpedoed during the Great War in 1917. The protagonist is Aylmer Vance, who undertakes investigations on behalf of the ‘Ghost Circle’ and regularly exposes false mediums and the like. But here we are presented with those cases he couldn’t explain, rationally …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted by Todd Mason at his fab Sweet Freedom blog; and Carl V Anderson’s Once Upon A Time IX Challenge

“I was conscious that Nature guarded innumerable secrets from men – secrets which she was loth to give up” – The Invader

Originally published in 1914 between 4 July and 22 August in The Weekly Tale-Teller, the stories were belatedly collected into the current volume in the late 1990s by Jack Adrian. None is especially frightening though all have a memorable atmosphere, usually doing a fine job in their depiction of crumbling country houses or the woods that surround them – indeed, the Askews focus very heavily on nature, providing a strong parallel in the sense of continuity and solidity of centuries-old woodland and the spirits dwelling therein, or nearby.

  1. The Invader
  2. The Stranger
  3. Lady Green-Sleeves
  4. The Fire Unquenchable
  5. The Vampire
  6. The Boy of Blackstock
  7. The Indissoluble Bond
  8. The Fear

In the opening story Vance meets Mr Dexter while on holiday. The two, bound by a strong attraction to the power of the night-time, strike up a friendship and Vance decides to recount some of his adventures. Most, it has to be said, don’t have a very happy ending and indeed see Vance as a somewhat ineffectual investigator – yes, he usually discovers what is behind various hauntings and possessions, but proves, for the most part, singularly unsuccessful in affecting events, ultimately just standing back and letting them run their course.

“The laws of this world are not the laws of the hereafter. Some day the truth will be revealed.” – The Indissoluble Bond

Askew_Vance_wordsworth2In The Invader Vance investigates a case of possession involving a good friend, in which an attempt to contact the dead leads to his wife having her essence stolen by a long dead witch. The finale is tragic but is given an extra punch when Dexter tells us that he is certain that Vance had in fact fallen in love with the woman. There is in fact usually a woman central to each story and they are usually extremely beautiful, often with a somewhat ethereal quality about them. This gets its lightest treatment in  Lady Green-Sleeves in which Vance once again succumbs to the charms of a young woman – who turns out to be long-dead. A nice development though sees Dexter discovering his own latent psychic powers, which very much come into their own in what may be the best story of the collection, The Boy of Blackstock, in which the duo investigate ‘poulterghesit’ activity and a much more down-to-earth case involving secret passages, blackmail and infidelity. It is the combination of mystery and the supernatural that really makes this story work, though all the titles in this brief collection have points of interest.

“Am I to understand that I am conversing with a ghost?” – Lady Green-Sleeves

The stories have often been compared to the Holmes and Watson adventures – to a degree, this is superficially apparent from the structure of the tales as Dexter narrates the adventures of his friend in a somewhat Watson-like mixture of awe and bafflement. The fifth story, The Vampire, which has generally been the most anthologised, is the one that makes the Holmes and Watson comparison extremely clear. Having ended his fishing holiday in Sussex, Dexter decides to find a room in the same lodgings as Vance so that he can further develop his new-found skills as a clairvoyant. From now on they act as a team, highly reminiscent of the Baker Street duo, though Vance resides in Dover Street, near Piccadilly. That doesn’t stop Vance making some very Holmesian pronouncements however:

“You ought to know by now, Dexter,” he said, “that I never jump to conclusions.” – The Boy of Blackstock

My blogging chum Karen over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings first pointed me to this book, for which many thanks. I thoroughly enjoyed the somewhat strange offerings, especially for their almost pantheistic fascination with the environment and its impact on those who dwell in it – either from this world, or the next …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘spooky’ category:

015-Vintage-Askew

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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29 Responses to AYLMER VANCE: GHOST-SEER (1914) by Alice and Claude Askew

  1. What a fascinating collection, Sergio! And such a shame that this writing duo didn’t get the chance to continue their writing careers. One wonders what work they might have done. As it is, this set of stories really seems to have an unusual blend of detection and otherworldliness. That, I must admit, isn’t usually my cuppa, but to see how it was done here would be interesting.

  2. Fascinating read Sergio—sounds right up my alley, will have to look into it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    The story The Vampire is available at Project Gutenberg Australia.

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    Very interesting! And not something I’d heard of before. It reminds me of a collection by A. C. and R. H. Benson–The Temple of Death is billed as “Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural” that I read two years ago.

    • Not read that one – thanks bev. I enjoyed its combination iof crime andthe supernatural, though William Hope Hodgson did it very well before them with his Carnacki stories

  5. Glad you enjoyed these Sergio! They are fun and an interesting take on the detecting duo formula!

  6. Truly fascinating, Sergio. I didn’t know about this husband-wife team of Alice and Claude Askew. The collection sounds like the lighter and original version of X-Files.

  7. Colin says:

    I think I’ll give this a try – I like short stories anyway and the supernatural/mystery aspect generally intrigues me. I’m glad you made me aware of it.

  8. Peggy Ann says:

    Sounds like a ‘devilicious’ read for October!

  9. realthog says:

    Oh, these sound fun! Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. J F Norris says:

    This was reprinted by Ash Tree Press back in the late 1990s or maybe early in this decade and that’s the edition I own. I’ve read only a few of the stories in this collection. For my tastes only middle of the road in the occult detective subgenre. Some better characters in more imaginative stories include the ghost busting stories of Flaxman Low by Hesketh-Pritchard and his mother, John Silence tales by Algernon Blackwood, Dr. Miles Pennoyer’s adventures (heavily influenced by Blackwood) by Margery Lawrence.

    Its interesting to me that Wordsworth has managed to reprint nearly everything that Ash Tree published. At one time I thought they were pirating the books that had material in the public domain as these clearly are. But now I wonder if they have some sort of agreement with them. This one seems an exact duplicate of the Ashe Tree limited edition if it has Jack Adrian’s introduction. He was the editor and compiler of a brief run of books they dubbed their Occult Detective Series.

    • Thanks John – no, it doesn’t have Adrian’s intro and indeed does not have any publication history details what so ever, which is a bit poor really – but then again, the material is all in the public domain so they are not obliged to include it. Yes, I agree, basically quite tame, but I found it had a surprising charm to it (though it is repetitive). Thanks for all the great extra info chum, as always.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    My own favorite psychic detective stories, aside from the slightly off to the side John the Balladeer stories by Manly Wade Wellman, are those involving Ron Goulart’s Max Kearney, the inadvertent GHOST BREAKER (as the first collection of the stories was called). The neo-radio drama BEYOND BELIEF being the most recent expression that I’ve tried not to miss: http://thrilling-adventure-hour.wikia.com/wiki/Beyond_Belief The tv movie Kolchak (the series was Dire), Carnacki and Mulder and Scully aren’t Too shabby, usually, in comparison…did you get the rash of US and Canadian imitations of THE X-FILES over there, such as PSI FACTOR and POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY? And comic book heroine Jane Quiet, a tribute to John Silence, scripted by my friend K. A. Laity…

    • Thanks for that Todd. I do enjoy Beyond Belief, really funny (though it’s been a while since I tuned in actually). I think a lot of those shows ended uf pn the Sci-Fi Network (as was). I agree, the two Kolckack TV-Movies scripted by Richard Matheson are tremendously entertaining and of course I am a huge fan of Medium (as I demonstrated here).

  12. tracybham says:

    Sounds like a very interesting read, Serigio, and perfect for the Once Upon a Time challenge.

  13. Jeff Flugel says:

    Thanks for discussing this collection, Sergio – and for letting me know of this nice new edition! I’m a big fan of supernatural/psychic detective fiction (Carnacki, Jules de Grandin, John Thunstone, et al) and have collected a bunch of them. While I’ve heard of the Aylmer Vance stories, I don’t believe I’ve read any of them, so will seek this collection out forthwith. The Holmes/Watson pattern which establishes itself in these tales also adds to their attraction. Cheers, mate!

  14. TomCat says:

    I bought this little book years ago for pennies on the euros at Het Boekenfestijn in the hope it was something along the lines of Thomas Carnacki. It wasn’t. But they were good, fun stories in their own rights.

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