Valancourt Books publishes old crime fiction, supernatural fiction, horror fiction and long-ago forgotten novels, and they've kept me entertained ever since I discovered they existed. My shelves are teeming with their books, precisely because I crave the obscure and because I haven't yet met a Valancourt novel I didn't like. Two more books now join the vacation reads: Wax, by Ethel Lina White and Gilded Needles, by Michael McDowell. They are two totally different animals -- Wax is pure vintage British mystery while Gilded Needles is more of a dark, historical crime novel of revenge set in New York in 1882. Gilded Needles gave me a case of the willies and as I noted somewhere, caused me to pretty much stop breathing during the last 1/4 of the book. Wax, on the other hand, is more along the lines of a whodunit set in a most incredibly creepy atmosphere that doesn't let up throughout the entire novel. Both, though, gave me the most intense satisfaction, which is all I can hope for when I'm enjoying vacation time. I only brought a limited number of books with me, so I got very lucky with these two.
First up is Wax, by Ethel Lina White, probably best known for her novel The Lady Vanishes.
Valancourt Books, 2015
Sadly, this particular version is not available in the US, but I bought mine at Book Depository and it was here in no time. Luckily, Kindle readers can get a copy for about six dollars. It is an old novel originally published in 1935, and as soon as I opened it to the first page, I found myself already soaking in atmosphere. At two a.m., Mr. Ames, who along with his wife serves as a caretaker for the old waxworks museum just outside of the small town of Riverpool, wakes up and remembers that he may have left a candle burning in "the Horrors." When his wife goes to investigate, she gets a creepy vibe from the wax figures, "a company of -- poisoners" whom she felt "resented her presence," since "At this hour, the gallery belonged to Them." Her fear drives her home in a hurry, where she tells Mr. Ames that
"...those figures were up to some business of their own. And I felt in my bones that it was no good business either."Seriously -- what a cool opening! The Waxwork Gallery was built in 1833, and had been "almost unlucky almost from its beginning." Evidently, the builder had hanged himself in the Hall of Horrors, then in the next decade a dead "tramp" was discovered there. In the 1890s, a prostitute was murdered there in the alcove, "wherein was staged -- appropriately -- the final tableau in the career of Vice." Moving the show into the 20th century, the body of a "commercial traveler" was discovered, this time with Virtue as a companion. Opening the door of the Waxwork Gallery reveals a dimly-lit space with panelled walls draped with black velvet, coated in dust. Some of the figures have seen better days; for example, Mary of Scotland is wearing moth-eaten black velvet and is described by Mrs. Ames as being "germy" and in need of replacement.
When young Sonia Thompson comes to town to take a job at the local newspaper, the Gallery is the first place she visits, and thinks she sees two people come to life. Mrs. Ames tells her that she herself saw no one, so Sonia puts it down to an illusion. However, she's not at all comfortable -- as we are told,
"She saw the Waxworks, not as harmless dummies, but as malign agents in a corrupt traffic..."and feels as if the walls themselves were rocking in the "rushes of darkness." She was, in short, "filled with horror of the Gallery." As Sonia begins to acquaint herself with the people of Riverpool, she is warned away from the wax museum more than once -- sage advice, as it turns out, since a body is discovered there. But it's not just the Waxworks that give Sonia the willies, since she soon finds herself wading knee deep into closely-held secrets that no one, absolutely no one, wants revealed and people who will go to great lengths to keep these hidden. Sonia can't help herself though -- after all, she is a reporter and she wants to discover exactly what is going on in this small town. She decides that there is only one way to get to the truth, and that is to spend a night on her own inside the Gallery.
Yowie zowie -- what a fun book! What sets this book apart from a number of other works of the time is the The Gallery, which as I noted earlier, is the focal point of this book, and is in its own way, connected to pretty much everything that goes on in the town. It is not as taut as I generally like my mystery novels to be, and it took a while to get to used to the author's sort of rambling style. On the flip side, what I discovered is that although it seems like there is a wee bit o' the babble going on here, there are important clues to be uncovered throughout the story, so there were places that I went back to in order to pick up what I'd missed. I have to say that I was hooked immediately, and that the novel turned out to be a fun read with a quite an ending. Vintage crime readers will definitely enjoy this one, as will readers looking for something just a bit off the beaten path. I will be revisiting Ethel Lina White later this year, as I plan to read her Some Must Watch (aka The Spiral Staircase) as well as her The Man Who Was Not There, both of which became films in the 1940s.
And now, moving right along to part two of this post, Gilded Needles is one of the darkest, creepiest tales of revenge that I've ever had the pleasure to have read.
paperback, 284 pp
It is just one of these "respectable" people who sets this story in motion. Young Benjamin Stallworth is having his fun slumming in the Black Triangle, when he notices Lena. She recognizes his eyes, remembering the time when a certain Judge Stallworth sentenced her husband to death and had her children taken away while she also went to prison. In the meantime, the Judge and his son-in-law, Duncan Phair, have decided to build their political and social clout by trying to take down the criminals and exposing the "evils" of the Black Triangle, publicizing their efforts in the newspaper. But while the plan seems to be working, one particular event sends Lena and her family over the edge, and now she's looking for revenge. And it definitely isn't going to be pretty. The novel goes back and forth between the Shanks family and the Stallworths, who really don't help themselves with their own arrogance and their lack of understanding of human nature.
Gilded Needles is written in a way that reminds me so very much of the 19th-century "city mysteries" novels I've read, exposing the city's dark, seamy underbelly and scratching off the veneer of respectability. McDowell has captured the style of this sort of old novel while making it his own; he is one of the best dark fiction writers whose work I've had the pleasure to have read. Gilded Needles is one of the most horrific non-horror stories I've read in a while -- bleak, very Dickensian and well, let's just say that it's definitely not for the faint of heart. At the same time, it is absolutely one of those books that once picked up will not easily be put down, and to be honest, I was still shaking after I'd finally turned the last page. I highly, highly recommend this one -- a definite no miss for readers of dark fiction and historical crime fiction.