Tuesday 22 December 2020

Dark Eyes Retro Reads #2 - the NELs of 'Raymond Giles'

Night of the Warlock 1968
first US edition
I originally owned Raymond Giles's three 'Night of the...' New English Library published books at the age of 10 or 11 years old, and re-reading them confirmed why a young boy was not the target audience for these things. I'm pretty sure I found out about them through a review of Night of the Vampire included in an edition of 'Target' magazine (also a NEL publication, whose weekly featured books were all, perhaps unsurprisingly, NEL titles). However because of the ubiquity of horror literature at the time, I could equally have come across them while rifling the bookstands of any branch of WH Smith or Woolworths.

So, to Raymond Giles; not his real name (of course!) but a pseudonym of American author John R. Holt. I'm not sure whether he wrote under any other nom de plumes (apart from Elizabeth Giles - see below) but by 1990 he'd finally decided to pen works under his own name, writing three horror novels during the decade: When We Dead Awaken (1990); The Convocation (1992); and Wolf Moon (1997). That, maybe, is the subject of a future post.

Beyond his birth and death dates - 24 September 1926 to 20 May 2006 - little is known about Holt, so it's left to his writing to speak for him, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. Sandwiched between the three 'Night of the...' books and the 1990s Holt volumes, in his Giles guise the author wrote the tie-in book adaptation of the film of Buzz Kulik's Burt Reynolds/Dyan Cannon vehicle Shamus in 1973; but perhaps more controversially he delved into what is now termed - and I wish I'd invented the term but sadly can't make that claim - plantationsploitation fiction, obviously inspired by Kyle Elihu Onstott's 'Mandingo' novels, which amazingly ran from 1957 to 1988!

In 1970 he wrote a novel of 'black passions and forbidden love' called Dark Master, and in 1975 followed up with Rogue Black (I don't think this was a book about snooker). But this stage of his career really kicked off later that same year the first of five 'Sabrehill' novels, chronicling the trials and tribulations of Jeb the slave, suffering at the hands of wicked plantation owners. The first, Sabrehill (the name of the place where Jeb was employed) was followed by Slaves of Sabrehill (1975), Rebels of Sabrehill (1976), Storm over Sabrehill (1981) and finally Hellcat of Sabrehill (1982). But we're not here to talk about those (and honestly I don't even know where I'd start if I had to). You want me to get to the meat of my post - the horror!

Night of the Warlock This was first published in the USA in 1968 by the Paperback Library company, then by New English Library a year after (and subsequently reprinted in 1970 and 1974 - obviously a popular title). The cover, by NEL go to sci fi artist Bruce Pennington (then 25 years old and who a year earlier had produced the iconic cover for NEL's re-issue of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune) is suitably horrific, but only slightly resembles any of the action in the book. The rest of the painting on the back of the novel, showing a young woman running away from a spooky house, is perhaps more on point.

Dana Knox, a model, receives some shocking news when she finds out that her uncle Hugo, the only remaining member of her family left alive, is dying of cancer in a Manhattan hospital. On his demise she finds out that in his will he has bequeathed her his vast mansion in upstate New York. It's a house she grew up in with her mother, but of which she only has vague - and unsettling - memories, having left it due to an unrecalled trauma. But there's a catch; to inherit both the house and the rest of the $4 million estate, she must live there uninterrupted for an entire year.

The only other occupants of the house are housekeeper Nicole Duhamel and her son Bayard, who will inherit the fortune if Dana is unable to fulfil the commitments of the will. Dana's on/off boyfriend Martin Lott, a writer whose books debunk magic and superstition but with a lifelong interest in the occult and who sports a talisman round his neck, resists the request to join Dana at the Knox home, so it's just her, Nicole and Bayard, who were also resident at the house when she was a little girl. [Sidebar: Lott is 35 in the book, and early on there's a, well for this author anyway, disquisitive riff on growing old. "He had heard that after you passed thirty-five you learned things about death that you could never know when you were younger..." Hang on, 35?! So I did a bit of research, and guess what the life expectancy of a US male in 1968 was? Just under 70 years, so maybe 35 wasn't that arbitrary after all (and as I've mentioned before, we shouldn't forget that one of the NEL titles available at the time was 'Sex for the Over Forties'). Sidebar ends]

But what Dana doesn't know, and the reader does, is that Hugo was a powerful warlock and the whole request for Dana to stay at the house is a setup to enable a magic ritual that will bring Hugo back from the dead; also that Dana and Bayard - also a warlock keen to help Hugo's return - are half brother and sister (which makes Bayard's attempted seduction of Dana rather dubious, as Hugo is dad to both). Add in Martin's new found magical powers and the stage is set for a battle of the dark arts, with Dana's soul as the prize.

After reading this, it came as no surprise that I didn't get on with Giles's prose as a youngster. He very much writes in the tradition of US gothic romance writers; but here with an added incest storyline, a few Lovecraftean 'nameless ones' touches and quite a lot of ritualistic detail. Dana is a classically adrift heroine, bouncing between the cool charms of Martin and the moustache twiddling advances of Bayard; pretty much all of her actions are at the diktat of a man and she takes no independent action throughout the novel. I also wonder whether the TV series Dark Shadows may have been an influence, as, apart from the gothic trappings, there are hints of other creatures in the book deserving of their own stories: of which more later. NotW's break with tradition is a rather gloomy ending in which the heroine doesn't win and Martin emerges as the star of the piece: a sequel beckons in the closing words, but was clearly not to be.

The 1969 US edition of Night
of the Vampire
by Avon Publishing
Night of the Vampire Before its NEL UK printing in 1970, NotV was first published in the US in 1969 by Avon publishers, who specialised in gothic romantic fiction, which is essentially what this is. Clearly NEL re-packaged his books for the UK as straightforward horror novels, which they clearly weren't.

The cover of the Avon edition shows a cowled coven huddled together behind a swarm of overlarge bats; the image could also be construed as a depiction of some rocky edifice, picked out against a moonlit backdrop. The cover of the NEL version, painted by renowned British illustrator Richard Clifton-Dey (1930 - 1977), depicts a winged woman in flight, fully naked,  whose head faces toward the viewer, mouth agape, while below another winged but hairier beast stands over a prone man, his bat wings also unfolded, while coven members, one clearly also naked under her robe, look on. Quite a difference, but both are relevant to the subject matter within.

The story of NotV concentrates on six disparate souls who, thirteen years ago as naïve and thrill seeking youths, participated in a series of rituals as part of a coven, swearing their allegiance to Satan, in the American lakeside town of Sanscoeur (translated in English as 'heartless', presumably a play on Sacrecoeur). This group comprises: Duffy Johnson, a psychiatrist; gold-digger Bonnie Wallace; successful architect and part time private dick Zachary Hale, who was responsible for the formation of the coven all those years ago; sociologist Ward Douglas and his partner, anthropologist Jeanne Retz; and goody goody librarian Lily Bains, with whom Duffy once had a thing, and who is the only coven member never to have left the town. To this cast list is added another former Sanscoeur resident, Roxanne, who as a youth was nicknamed locally as 'the Wolf Girl' and who Duffy has since married, despite her obsession that she might be a lycanthrope.

Thirteen years on, the group are psychically summoned by a cult of devil worshippers who have the ability to change into bats at will; their particular interest seems to be the wolf girl, Roxanne, the last of the Sanscoeur family, but it's not long before the bat people start offing the original coven; first Bonnie gets it, lured out into the countryside at night by the full time town sheriff (and part time bat person) Talbot Grennis. Town suspicion falls on Roxanne, and we learn a lot about Roxanne's past, her difficult relationship with, well pretty much everyone really, and the discovery of her lycanthropic tendencies. Roxanne's 'issues' and neediness pushes Duffy to re-ignite his relationship with Lily (the wolf girl's hyper-sensitive nostrils pick up Lily's scent on his clothes, fuelling her anger). Meanwhile Hale uncovers a historic pattern of murders centring around the Sanscoeur house (the one in which Roxanne grew up), linked to the coven he formed. He knows too much and is subsequently mauled to death for his troubles.

The original coven, now scared to remain in the town, fail to leave in time, and the bat people close in to eliminate them, headed by someone who has a particular agenda.

The plot of NoTV feels rather slung together, a mix of romance, psychological and horror elements which don't really gel. The central figure, Duffy, is a guy who has seduced an innocent woman (Lily) and then paid for it with a guilt-ridden marriage to Roxanne based on pity rather than love. There is never an explanation of the origin of the bat people, nor is Roxanne's lycanthropic state conclusive, which makes the book's coda all the more ridiculous. 

This one was, sadly a bit of a chore to get through. Artist Gahan Wilson, reviewing the novel in the October 1969 edition of 'The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,' described NotV as "an unabashed romp...and it is fun if you don't mind cardboardish characters, a creaking plot, and a hero named Duffy Johnson." So let's not disabuse ourselves that Giles's book felt like old hat even over fifty years ago. Next!

One of the three US editions of
Children of the Griffin 
Night of the Griffin This book was originally published in the US in 1971 under the name Children of the Griffin with the author's name given as, not Raymond, but 'Elizabeth Giles'. The following year - 1972 - the same 'Elizabeth Giles' wrote a gothic novel, As Darker Grows the Night ("A strange and deadly presence turns Carol Maxwell's refuge of love into a mansion of fear").

The NEL's retitling of the book as 'Night of...' both links it to Giles's earlier novels (it advertises them as the third in the author's 'soul chilling series' although nothing plot wise links the books) and again establishes it as a straightforward horror novel (complete with menacing Clifton-Dey cover depicting a scene that doesn't occur in the novel). But, unlike the other two, this is a full on gothic romance which flirts with (then very fashionable) themes of witchcraft and the occult.

Told in the first person by lead character, Beth St. Denis, Ms (actually make that Miss) Saint D is a woman drifting through life, single and desperate for a man to make her complete. Although Beth feels she's singularly lacking in the talent department, to her surprise she seems to be a natural at tarot card reading, when introduced to the occupation by her flatmate Nina and Nina's boyfriend Victor. Nina arranges for Beth to be introduced to the mysterious Maretta who lives in Griffon House, a sprawling out of the way mansion in the Pennsylvanian countryside. Maretta is holding a Halloween party which is a thin disguise for some kind of sabbat; the party guests hail from various parts of the world (a setup clearly borrowed from Dennis Wheatley's 'The Devil Rides Out'). Beth witnesses the start of the ritual, but is whisked away following the arrival of Maretta's brother Robert, with whom Beth falls instantly and madly in love. The pair stay up all night talking, the only sour note being a mysterious presence in the house which threatens to overwhelm the over-sensitive Beth.

Within days the pair have chastely courted and announced to the others that they are to be married. Beth hands in her notice at work - in 1971 marriage and employment seemed to be an either/or affair for women - and moves her things into Griffon House. But Robert's waters run deep; he has scars on his wrists from a previous suicide attempt, and on the night of the wedding, instead of the passionate evening she was expecting, Beth is faced with an angry Robert who tells her that she must leave the house immediately, and locks himself in an upstairs room to continue his studies.

Robert's advice is echoed by the family doctor and indeed Nina and Victor. Beth learns that Robert is prone to severe depressions (which gave rise to the previous suicide attempt) and she is unable to help him, or indeed spend any time with him. Faced with the possibility of ending her marriage before it's even begun, It's only when Beth looks into what her husband has been studying, and learns of the satanic cult called the 'Children of the Griffin,' that she understands the danger. For Maretta is the high priestess of a sect who sell their souls to a demonic griffin figure (who, contrary to what the book's cover suggests, never appears) in return for protection from damnation. And Robert is, reluctantly, one of the 'Children'; Maretta is keen for Beth to join them too.

NotG is 140 pages of one woman's torment as she is prevented from being with the man she loves. Robert, for reasons we later find are entirely related to Beth's protection, acts like a total bastard to her for most of the book, failing to disclose the nature of his concerns to his wife (which doesn't bode well for their future partnership - yes they live to tell the tale). Initially the reader has some sympathy with Beth but reading about her endless attempts to connect with Robert while the rest of the characters happily and mercilessly gaslight her gets pretty tedious; and yes, everyone's in on it, except for the local vicar. There's a brief, bloody climax to the piece, but there's nothing really supernatural going on here.

There is, however, finally a connection with one of Giles's other NELs. While Beth is trawling through Robert's research books she comes across a tome entitled 'Night of the Warlock' by Raymond Giles; this would have been a bit more meta if one was reading this with the author named as Elizabeth Giles, but in the NEL version it's just silly. 

So what's this all about then? Well the clue is in Beth's closing remarks: 'Be warned, my children, Evil is positive, Satan lives...' indicate that Mr Holt has written his last 'Night of the...' book as a warning against tampering with the dark side, an approach similarly taken by Mr Wheatley, who made a lot more money from his books than Mr Holt, I'll wager.


  1. Fabulous stuff David, and always an education when you write about the New English Library. I knew at least two 2nd hand bookstores back in the 90's that still had a healthy stock of NEL titles, but apart from admiring the artwork, I never really delved into any of them - there was too much Stephen King, Dead Koontz, James Herbert to explore. So, it's very nice to go back and see what I might have missed (or was spared!)

    1. Thanks Wes. Yeah reading (or re-reading in some cases) this stuff, written fifty odd years ago, is a strange experience. Most of it is incredibly slow paced (the average length of around 120 pages takes ages to get through) and you get more than a whiff of jobbing writers tossing these things off with little worry about comprehensibility of plot or character motivation. More to come next year though.