The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk

Whitstable – 1971

Peter Cushing, grief-stricken over the loss of his wife and soul-mate, is walking along a beach near his home. A little boy approaches him, taking him to be the famous vampire-hunter Van Helsing from the Hammer films, begs for his expert help . . .

 “A beautiful piece of work . . . heartfelt, respectful, elegant, brave”

—Dread Central

 

He couldn’t face going outside. He couldn’t face placing his bare feet into his cold, hard slippers. He couldn’t face sitting up. He couldn’t even face opening his eyes. To what? The day. Another day without Helen in it. Another day without the sun shining.

For a moment or two before being fully awake he’d imagined himself married and happy, the luckiest man on earth, then pictured himself seeing her for the first time outside the stage door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane: she a shining star who said a platypus looked like “an animal hot water bottle” – he in his vagabond corduroys, battered suitcase, hands like a Dürer drawing, breath of cigarettes and lavender. Then as sleep receded like the waves outside his window, he felt that dreadful, dreaded knot in his stomach as the awareness of her no longer being there – her non-presence – the awful, sick emptiness, rose up again from the depths. The sun was gone. He might as well lie there with his eyes shut, because when his eyes opened, what was there but darkness?

Habitually he’d rise with the light, drink tea, take in the sea view from the balcony, listen to the wireless and sometimes go for a swim. He did none of these things. They seemed to him to be activities another person undertook in a different lifetime. Life. Time. He could no more picture doing them now than he could see himself walking on the moon. The simplest tasks, the very idea of them, seemed mountainous. Impossible.

Yet it was impossible, also, to lie there like a dead person, greatly as it appealed to do so. It was something of which he knew his darling would so disapprove, her reprimand virtually rang in his ears and it was this that roused him to get up rather than any will of his own.

His will was only to . . .

But he didn’t even have the strength for that.

She was his strength, and she was gone.

Helen.  Oh, Helen . . .

Even as he sat hunched on the edge of the bed, the burden of his loss weighed on his skinny frame. He had no choice but to let the tears flow with the same cruel predictability as his dream. Afterwards, weaker still, he finally rose, wiping his eyes with now-damp knuckles, wrapping his dressing gown over baggy pyjamas and shambling like something lost and misbegotten towards the landing. A thin slat shone between the still-drawn curtains onto the bedroom wallpaper. He left the room with them unopened, not yet ready to let in the light.

A half-full milk bottle sat on the kitchen table and the smell hit him as soon as he entered. The sink was full to the brim, but he poured the rancid liquid in anyway, not caring that it coated a mound of dirty plates, cups, saucers and cutlery with a viscous white scum.

He opened the refrigerator, but it was empty. He hoped the milkman had left a pint on the doorstep: he hated his tea black. Then he remembered why he had no groceries.  Joycie did it.  Joyce, his secretary, did everything for ‘Sir’. He pictured again the hurt in her eyes when he’d told her on the telephone she would not be needed for the foreseeable future, that she needn’t come to check that he was all right because he was all right. He’d said he needed to be alone. Knowing that the one thing he didn’t want to be was alone, but that was not the way God planned it.

Nasty God.

Nasty, nasty God . . .

He shut the fridge. He didn’t want food anyway. What was the point? Food only kept one alive and what was the point of that? Sitting, eating, alone, in silence? What was the point of that?

He put on the kettle. Tea was all he could stomach. The calendar hung facing the wall, the way he’d left it.

The letter box banged, startling him, shortly followed by a knock on the wood. It was Julian the postman, he thought, probably wanting to give his condolences in person. He held his breath and had an impulse to hide. Instead he kept quite still.  Julian was a sweet chap but he didn’t want to see him. Much as he knew people’s wishes were genuine, and appreciated them, his grief was his own, not public property. And he did not want to feel obliged to perform whenever he met someone from now on. The idea of that was utterly repellent.  How he dealt with his inner chasm, his utter pain and helplessness, was his own affair and other people’s pity or concern, however well-meaning, did not make one iota of difference to the devastation he felt inside.

He stood furtively by the doorway to the hall and watched as a package squeezed through and fell onto the welcome mat, and beyond the glass the silhouette of the postman departed.

It had the unmistakable shape of a script.

His heart dropped. He hoped it was not another one from Hammer. He’d told them categorically via his agent he was not reading anything. He knew Michael had newly found himself in the chair as Managing Director, and had a lot on his plate, but could he really be so thoughtless? Jimmy was a businessman, but he also counted him a friend. They all were.  More than friends – family. Perhaps it was from another company, then? Amicus?  No. Sweet Milton had his funny American ways, but would never be so callous. Other companies were venal, greedy, but not these. They were basically gentlemen. They all knew Helen. They’d enjoyed laughter together. Such laughter, amongst the gibbets and laboratories of make-believe. Now, he wondered if he had the strength in his heart to meet them ever again.

He picked up the package and, without opening it, put it on the pile of other unread manuscripts on the hall stand. Another bundle sat on the floor, a teetering stack of intrusion and inconvenience. He felt no curiosity about them whatsoever, only harboured a mild and uncharacteristic resentment. There was no small corner of his spirit for wonder. They were offers of work and they represented the future. A future he could not even begin to contemplate. Why could they not see that?

He sighed and looked into the mirror between the hat hooks and what he saw no longer shocked him.

Lord, the make-up job of a master. Though when he sat in the make-up chair of late he usually had his hairpiece to soften the blow. Never in public, of course: he abhorred that kind of vanity in life. Movies were different. Movies were an illusion. But – fifty-seven? He looked more like sixty-seven. What was that film, the part written for him but one of the few he turned down? The Man Who Could Cheat Death. But he couldn’t cheat death at all, could he? The doctors couldn’t, and neither could he. Far from it.

Dear Heavens . . .

The old swashbuckler was gone now. Fencing in The Man in the Iron Mask. The Sheriff of Nottingham. Captain Clegg of Romney Marsh . . . He looked more like a Belsen victim. Who was it said in a review he had cheekbones that could cut open letters? He did now. Cheeks sucked in like craters, blue eyes sunk back in deep hollows, scrawny neck, grey skin. He was positively cadaverous. Wishful thinking, he thought. A blessing and a curse, those gaunt looks had been his trademark all these years, playing cold villains and erudite psychopaths, monster-hunters and those who raised people from the dead. Yet now the only person he desperately craved to bring back from the grave he had no power to. It was the one role he couldn’t play. Frankenstein had played God and he had played Frankenstein playing God. Perhaps God had had enough.

The kettle whistled and the telephone rang simultaneously, conspiring to pierce his brain. He knew it was Joycie. Dear Joycie, loyal indefatigable Joycie, who arrived between dry toast and correspondence every day, whose concern persisted against all odds, whose emotions he simply couldn’t bear to heap on his own. He simply knew he could not speak to her, hear the anguish in her voice, hear the platitudes even if they weren’t meant as platitudes (what words could not be platitudes?) and, God knows, if he were to hear her sobs at the end of the line, he knew it would tip him over the edge.

Platitude:

An animal that looks like a hot water bottle.

Hearing Helen’s laughter, he shut his eyes tightly until the phone stopped ringing, just as it had the day before. And the day before that.

Quiet loomed, welcome and unwelcome in the mausoleum of his house.

He stared at the inert typewriter in the study, the signed photographs and letter-headed notepaper stacked beside it, the avalanche of mail from fans and well-wishers spilling copiously, unattended, across the floor from the open bureau, littering the carpet. He pulled the door shut, unable to bear looking at it.

Hardly thinking what he was doing, he re-entered the kitchen and spooned two scoops of Ty-Phoo into the tea pot and was about to pour in boiling water when he froze.

The sudden idea that Joyce might pop round became horrifically possible, if not probable. She wasn’t far away. No more than a short car journey, in fact, and she could be here and he would be trapped. Heavens, he could not face that. That would be unbearable.  Instantly he realised he had to get out. Flee.

Unwillingly, sickeningly, he had no choice but to brave the day.

Upstairs he shook off his slippers, replacing them with a pair of bright yellow socks. Put on his grey flannel slacks, so terribly loose around the waist. Needing yet another hole in the belt. Shirt. Collar gaping several sizes too big now, too. Tie. No time for tie. Forget tie.  Why was he forced to do this? Why was he forced to leave his home when he didn’t want to?  He realised he was scared. The scaremonger, scared. Of this. What if he saw somebody? What if they talked to him? Could he be impolite? Unthinkable. Could he tell them how he really felt? Impossible. What then?

He told himself he was an actor. He would act.

Back in the hall he pulled on his winter coat and black woollen hat, the kind fishermen wear, tugging it down over his ears, then looped his scarf round his neck like an over-eager schoolboy. February days could be bright, he told himself, and he found his sunglasses on the mantelpiece in the living room sitting next to a black and white photograph of his dead wife. At first he avoided looking at it, then kissed his trembling fingertips and pressed them gently to her cheek. His fingerprints remained on the glass for a second before fading away.

I’m a little saddened whenever I think of Peter Cushing, and not for the usual reasons of his loss of his wife and, of course, our loss of his remarkable talent. I bought two huge bound volumes of the classic EAGLE comic, both of them the original property of Cushing—and they came with a bona fide provenance. They were the pride—or one of the prides cos I have a lot—of my collection but, alas, a day dawned (as they always do, eventually) when I had to let them go. I often think of those wonderful bound volumes. If you’re reading this and you’re the fine fellow into whose custody I placed those marvelous volumes—and you’re thinking now of letting them go on to someone else—then please do get in touch.

 Leytonstone – 1906

Young Alfred Hitchcock is taken by his father to visit the local police station. There he suddenly finds himself, inexplicably, locked up for a crime he knows nothing about – the catalyst for a series of events that will scar, and create, the world’s leading Master of Terror . . .

 “Volk possesses a questing mind and an expansive heart and paints dark and light sides of the human equation like few others”

—Mick Garris, producer/director, MASTERS OF HORROR

 

“Desirée . . . Maxine . . .”

Pigeons nod at crumbs on a pavement.

“Burly Rose . . . Royal Kidney . . .”

Water empties over the flagstones. The winged pests scatter with a grey fluttering.

“Kennebec . . . Avalanche . . .”

Dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes. A man scrubs the pavement with the stiffest of brooms.

“Belle de Fontenay . . . Pentland Javelin . . .”

Indoors, a small framed picture sits like a window on the Byzantine Lincrusta wallpaper. Francis of Assisi, eyes turned piously upwards, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, birds perched along them, treating them like branches, and aloft, circling his head and halo.

“Sharp’s Express . . . British Queen . . .”

In the greengrocer’s at five hundred and seventeen The High Road it is evening, but this room behind the shop is dark even at noon. The fruit and veg are out front to catch the sun, but the spuds, like the family, are kept at the back, in the gloom for safe keeping.

“Northern Star . . .”

The boy sits with elbows up on a plain wooden table, frowning with deepest concentration, hands cupped round his eyes.

“Eightyfold . . .”

Fred is a chubby little dumpling with a cockscomb of hair on top. (Born 1899 – last knockings of the old century, when Victoria was still on the throne – making him just under seven now.)

“Evergood . . .”

A woman’s hand removes the potato from the table-cloth in front of him, replacing it in a flourish with another.

“Up To Date . . .”

Another.

“King Edward . . .”

Another – the last, and it’s done.

“Red Duke of York . . .”

She shows him her empty palms. The silent, regal mime of applause that accompanies a miniscule tilt of the head is praise enough to make his cheeks burn. Sometimes it takes a lot to make his mother smile, he knows, but when she does it’s like getting a gold medal from the Queen. A V.C. for gallantry. And she is the Queen. In this house, anyway. Prim and proper and elegant – so much more elegant than any of his schoolmates’ mothers. A different class entirely. And dresses – oh, immaculately. Never seen outside without her white cotton gloves. Spotless. What are the others? Loud-mouthed fishwives, most of them, with brown baggy stockings and bruises where they’ve been on their knees all day.

“Onions!” he cries. “Test me on the onions now! Please, Mother! I know them all!”

“Back home they say onions are a great cure for The Baldness,” she singsongs in her Irish brogue. “Rub the scalp with a spoonful of onion sap, it’d put hair on a duck’s egg!”

Fred chuckles, but at the sound of the latch the moment between them is lost, and so is the chortle in his throat.

His father comes in, taking off the flat cap which confers him a degree of status to those he employs, and hangs it on a peg. Unties the knot of his tan apron at the small of his back and dips his fingers in the font, quickly genuflecting to Our Lady before hanging up the apron on the hook behind the door.

“The sailor home from the sea,” Fred’s mother says, as if some joke is being shared between her and her son. Fred twitches a smile, but just as swiftly it is gone and he lowers his eyes.

His father washes the earth off his hands under the tap at the Belfast sink. Water runs black down the plug hole. The soap is an unforgiving brick. A disinfectant smell bites at the air. There is no mirror, but while his face is still wet he flattens his moustache and eyebrows with several strokes of a forefinger and thumb.

“Father, I’ve been learning how to – ”

“Is he ready?”

The stiff tap turns off with a harsh twist leaving a stain of grime where the man’s thumbs went. He dries his hands briskly in a tea towel. “Now, Bill,” his wife says. “Just a little longer . . .”

“No.” For once he gives her no quarter. He is adamant. “If it’s to be done, let’s have it done.”

“Name o’ God, let him have his tea first.”

“Name o’ God nothing.” He returns the tea towel to its nail and rolls down his sleeves, folding over his cuffs and prodding in the links which he keeps next to his shaving paraphernalia on the shelf. “Fred, put your coat on, son.”

Fred’s mother rises and lifts the small tweed jacket from the back of Fred’s chair and the child puts it on. It matches his shorts exactly. It’s a suit like that of a grown man. She crouches in front of him, buttons it up, tucks his shirt tail in at the back, adjusts the knot of his little tie. Fred notices her smile is still there, yes – but it is not the same smile as was there before.

“Where are we going?”

“You’re going with your father.”

She wraps a woolly scarf around his neck. Knots it. There.“Don’t mollycoddle him, Em. Leave him.”

His father takes a black jacket from its hanger, flicks off dust with his fingers and slips his arms into the sleeves. He takes a different hat – a black bowler this time – from the peg next to the flat cap.

“Come here,” says Fred’s mother to her child. She gives him a hug – a swift hug, but a tight one, then a kiss on the cheek so hard it almost hurts. She rubs the red stain from her lips off with a licked thumb. Then kisses him a second time, even harder. He tries not to wince. “I’m going to make a great big steak and kidney pie. That’s your favourite – a nice big steak and kidney pie, isn’t it?”

Fred nods enthusiastically then turns at the sound of a cough.

His father cocks his head for Fred to follow him. Which the boy does, smiling and obedient as ever and smiling because his mother is smiling, after all.

They walk through the shop, the boy behind the man, smelling the sweetness of carrots and parsnips and the cloying heaviness of soil and sacks and straw and the boy does not see his mother sit back at the table, her knees suddenly weak.

When she hears the front door open and close, the shop bell tinkle, she clutches her rosary beads, closes her eyes tightly and for several minutes thereafter silently prays into her white-knuckled hand to Mary, the mother of her God.

Netherwood – 1947

Best-selling black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley finds himself summoned mysteriously to the aid of Aleister Crowley – mystic, reprobate, The Great Beast 666, and dubbed by the press ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ – to help combat a force of genuine evil . . .

“Beautifully written. Perfectly nuanced. I loved it”

—Neil Spring, best-selling author of The Ghost Hunters

“Mesmeric and demonic. An instant classic”

—Johnny Mains, series editor, Best British Horror

“The perfect finale to the Dark Masters Trilogy. Packed with word magic, full of illuminating darkness.”

—A. K. Benedict, author of The Beauty of Murder and Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts

 

“Netherwood”

The Ridge

Hastings.

23rd October, 1947.

Care Frater Scriptor

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

I beg of you, come immediately. I need a good man, with a strong heart. A life is at stake – and not my own. (Telephone number on reverse.)

Love is the law, love under will.

Oliver Haddo

A∴A∴

 

The view beyond the window was monochrome. A blighted land. Not green and pleasant, but ashen, a charcoal sketch. A thick layer of dirt separated him from the world, inhibiting his gaze as if ashamed of what lay beyond. Home and hearth despoiled. The very coach he was riding in, filthy, tired, dispossessed. Too weary, like the many millions of souls shivering by their firesides, to be a disgrace.

He remembered the poster he’d stood next to on the platform at Southampton. ‘SHABBY? YES! IT WILL TAKE TIME TO REPAIR OUR 800 SOUTHERN RAILWAY STATIONS – BUT IT WILL BE DONE AS SOON AS WE GET THE MATERIALS!’ A war-devastated company slow to recover after it had ended, like so many. The line had suffered all the more because of its closeness to the Channel ports – vital to the war effort – its routes commandeered for troops and military supplies, not least for Normandy, and Overlord, resulting in its malachite green carriages and sunshine yellow livery running the gauntlet along the south coast and getting a real pasting.

He tried to create a clean oval with his fingertip, and failed. The grime was on the outside. Nevertheless he could see enough of what he didn’t want to. Fields pitted by bomb craters. The landscape ravaged. Recovering, perhaps, like a crippled Tommy, but unbowed? Or was that a brave face it was putting on, still wracked with pain from its visible and invisible wounds? He felt it in deep his own body, too, as clearly as he felt the jostling of the track underneath him.

The Blighted Land.

A potential title? He took out his notebook and jotted it down, immediately capping his fountain pen self-consciously.

A young couple occupied the same compartment. Sweethearts, he guessed, from their whispered endearments, and the fact that they clasped hands so tightly. The man’s uniform that of a lance corporal, the three feathers in his cap badge indicating the Royal Regiment of Wales. Clean shaven. Not that there was much to shave. Forehead wide, chin small, he reminded him of Chad, the graffito character chalked on every wall for the last several years with variations of the same cri de coeur: ‘Wot, no sausages?’ ‘Wot, no girls?’ – or, in this case, possibly: ‘Wot, no war?’

Not wanting his lack of conversation construed as sullenness, he spoke.

“Glad to see you got through unscathed.”

“Not exactly,” the young man said. “Lost one of my balls at Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.”

Dennis raised one eyebrow.

“You and Hitler both, then. If the song is to be believed.”

The lad laughed, heartily.

Dennis reached out his right hand to shake the other chap’s. The lance corporal reached out his left. Dennis quickly swapped to his left and clutched it vigorously.

“Right-handed before I left.” The soldier still laughed. “Now I have to learn all sorts with my left hand. Quite fun doing so, to be fair.”

The girl blushed and nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. He pretended it hurt more than it did, then snatched a mischievous kiss on her cheek. The grin did not leave his face, and peculiarly that made Dennis sadder instead of happier, though he didn’t let it show.

He liked their playful banter, their intimate chatter, their sentimental need to touch. If there could only be that, he thought, they would be happy – and good luck to them. They probably read no newspapers, had no interest in world affairs. They’d probably had enough of ‘world affairs’ for a lifetime. He couldn’t say they’d be wrong, either. We’d all had a big party, but there was still rationing. The war was over, but nothing had changed. There were no planes droning overhead, but there were still bombed and demolished buildings. After the blackouts, it was odd to see all the shops with their lights on, but things hadn’t got better. Not in the way we’d all been led to expect. By a long chalk.

Was he the only person who felt the ubiquitous cheerfulness had a desperate, hollow ring to it? Under the surface, to him, there lay a mild sense of anarchy waiting to escape. He wondered how foreigners saw the British now? Could they perceive all too clearly we had a deeply false vision of ourselves? The jollity but a tiresome artifice? He for one still had the stink of the Blitz in his nostrils. A sense that he’d walked out of a burning building without so much as a scratch. He’d come out of Hatchett’s, a new basement restaurant, one night to see Burton’s the tailors ablaze, and Piccadilly lit up like a funfair. The Café de Paris, yards away, had suffered a direct hit, and he’d seen looters scrabbling amongst the dead and dying for valuables. One woman was bent over, cutting off fingers. He still had that feeling in his stomach now that he had back then, almost every day.

Best of all, he liked that the young couple didn’t recognise him. He was hardly a public figure or a matinee idol. He suffered no illusion about that. But some did, from the dust jackets. For now, though, he could enjoy the welcome anonymity.

A lover and his lass. He shut his eyes and drifted back to The Savoy, 1940. The band playing It was a Lover and his Lass by Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra. The usual, painfully predictable litany of questions that always come once you’d made the schoolboy error of saying you’re a novelist.

Oh! What have you written that I’ve read?

He’d have to grit his teeth.

—I don’t know. What have you read?

His darling wife, in her element. Ferociously well connected. Joan Gwendoline Vanden-Bempe-Johnstone, as was. Daughter of the Hon what-what. Ex-wife of Sir what-what, Second Baronet what-what. And so it went back. Back to the dawn of time, it seemed.

So, old chap, do you make an actual living from this ‘scribing’ lark?

—Touch wood.

You know, I’ve an absolute corker of an idea. If I could only find the time to write the dashed thing.

—It does help.

Thing is, I know it would sell like absolute hot cakes! I say. Here’s a thought. We could collaborate. I’d have all the ideas, you wouldn’t have to worry on that score, but you can get it down on paper, you see? And you have the contacts. We could go 50-50. How’s that? Make a fortune!

—Rescue me.

These were Joan’s people, not his.

—Enjoy the claret, she’d invariably reply, from the corner of her mouth.

—About all I am enjoying.

The penguin suits were a far cry from the khaki sitting opposite. And he knew which he respected most.

“D-Day?” he said to the lance corporal.

“Nothing so grand.”

“I don’t care if you spent all your time spud-bashing. You did us proud.”

He meant it.

The young man looked embarrassed, and coloured slightly, examining his boots, which made Dennis admire him all the more. They were all heroes to him, and the sight of a uniform did peculiar things in his chest. He couldn’t help it. He’d cursed the fact that he’d been forty-two, over the age at which ex-officers could be re-commissioned. Additionally galling as two of his stepsons and his wife were all either in the forces or employed by the government. The thought of enduring the war as a dreary civilian was anathema. He’d tried everything to get a posting, by hook or by crook – applying to the Ministry of Information three times, without getting as much as a reply – finally, rather ignominiously, settling for becoming a fire warden. He bitterly regretted not serving in the thick of it as he had in the Great War. But he did do his bit, as it turned out, thanks to an extraordinary stroke of luck. The kind of luck that had been his boon companion all his life.

Joan had put her motor car at the disposal of the War Office, acting as a driver for MI5. She’d always liked mucking about with engines and, doling out fuel rations, came into her own, known, rather amusingly, as ‘The Petrol Queen’. One day she’d overheard an officer in the back seat saying it seemed horribly clear Germany would invade, but they had little idea how or when. “Why don’t you ask my husband?” she piped up. “He uses his imagination for a living.”

This was the welcome catalyst for him writing Resistance to Invasion. His avalanche of ideas went down well, and immediately. Greig and Darvall liked what they read and gave him his next assignment, to imagine himself as a member of the Nazi High Command. Not only a tough exercise, but a vitally important one, and he’d taken to it like the proverbial duck to water. In forty-eight hours solid, sustained by three magnums of plonk and tearing through hundreds of cigarettes, he’d churned out the 15,000-word Invasion and Conquest of Britain, putting himself in the shoes (or jackboots, rather) of a calculating and heartless enemy who’d think nothing of employing poison gas or bacteriological warfare, with no humanitarian considerations whatsoever. What followed, when his writing had gone to the Chiefs of Staff, and copied to the King himself, was a swift request for more reports – hundreds of thousands of words, delivered to ‘Mr Rance’s Room at the Office of Works’: the cover name for the Cabinet War Rooms in Churchill’s bunker under Whitehall.

Dennis was inordinately proud of his war work, and grateful for it. It taught him about the lives of real people and true bravery and danger that would help no end in making his own tales plausible and authentic. More than that, it made him desperately conscious of the things he held precious, and the things he feared. His mind had spun. His fingers had developed calluses where his pencil rubbed. His hands got cramp. Yet his fears urged him on. The narratives he was dreaming up dare not stop. If they stopped, he would feel like a coward on the battlefield turning his back and running away. His fiction could wait. Sleep could wait.

And yet, the question plagued him, constantly, even now . . .

Was it enough? His million words, for a readership of four?

Could anything ever be enough?

“We are champions of Light facing the creeping Darkness,” he remembered writing, in those clearer, more terrified, more united days. But is the Darkness ever truly defeated?

The braying voices at the Savoy came back to him.

I couldn’t sleep for weeks after those dreadful scenes of devil worship in the Home Counties.

—Quite right too.

And the appalling Mr Mocata!

Where do you get your ideas?

—Little shop off the Marylebone Road. Terribly useful.

—He writes about what scares him, said Joan, her hands on his shoulders. Don’t you, darling?

Emboldened from his natural shyness by her kiss on his cheek, he’d happily sign with a flourish the next dozen, or two dozen, copies of the novel with his name on the cover. OVER THREE MILLION COPIES OF THIS AUTHOR’S NOVELS SOLD, it read. THRILLING BLACK MAGIC STORY, it promised. ‘THE BEST TALE OF ITS KIND SINCE DRACULA’ – JAMES HILTON, it heralded.  In the bottom corner, a gigantic scarlet goat stood on its hind legs exuding flames from its nostrils, while around it danced naked figures, one in a pointed hat hunched over a broomstick. Dominating all, the face of a bald-headed man bathed in emerald green light, with searing, malevolent eyes, his hands twisted in conjuring gestures, thrown as claw-like shadows behind the author’s surname.

That brought him back to the letter.

Its writer, behind the all-too-obvious pseudonym, not difficult to discern.

‘Oliver Haddo’ . . . the odious scoundrel in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician, described as having a head like a pea balanced on an egg, who inflicted his awful poetry on unsuspecting guests. Quite obviously an extremely thinly-veiled portrait of Aleister Crowley. In fact, when the subsequent film was released, Dennis seemed to recall, Crowley tried to sue for compensation, but there was, of course, no hope of damages. His reputation was deemed so black by then it essentially couldn’t be made blacker.

But he had known the identity of the sender before he’d read as far as the signature.

The envelope had been sealed with the cartouche of Ankh-f-n-Khonsu in blue-grey wax, made with the same seal ring Crowley had worn when they’d met, the significance of which he had gone to pains to elucidate. If further confirmation were needed, the letterhead was the telltale vesica enclosing Crowley’s ‘Magister Templi’ lamen, which consisted of a crown bisected by a sword, scales on its tip balancing the Greek letters alpha and omega, surrounded by five Vs, indicating Crowley’s motto of initiation: “Vi Veri Vniversum Vivus Vici”  – again, imparted to Dennis by the man himself: “By the power of truth I have conquered the Universe”.

Either an extraordinary statement of fact or quite remarkable wishful thinking.

 

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