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The Border Line
by Walter S. Masterman
Introduction by John Pelan
The book that you hold in your hands has a fairly quirky background even amidst the rest of Ramble House’s publications, (most of which can be said to have pretty quirky backgrounds). When Fender, Gavin, and myself decided to launch Dancing Tuatara Press, one of the authors that I had under consideration to include in the program was Walter S. Masterman. However, Fender had already beaten me to the punch and issued several of Masterman’s novels! As these titles did not include introductions, this introduction will not only discuss the title at hand, but also attempt to provide some overall context for Masterman’s place in the annals of weird and detective fiction.
Now that we’re used to not only seeing “horror” as a market category, but also “quiet horror”, “splatterpunk”, “supernatural romance”, “weird menace”, “SF horror”, and as many other micro genres as one can imagine; it might be hard to visualize a time when all of the above were simply called “thrillers”. The micro genres can be traced back to the U.S. pulps of the 1930s, where there was seemingly a pulp for every specialized interest imaginable. Even though this fragmentation was well underway, magazines such as the U.K.-based Hutchinson’s Mystery Magazine and the U.S.-based Weird Tales served up a wide variety of fiction, wherein the reader was never quite sure what he was getting into until finishing the story!
This same attitude was reflecting by the British book publishers who targeted their wares to the lending libraries and several notable authors rose to the occasion, turning out a high volume to titles that ran the entire gamut as listed above. This group of authors included Edmund Snell, James Corbett, Ronald S.L. Harding, Arlton Eadie, and the present subject, Walter S. Masterman. Of this group, Masterman is likely the most familiar name to the modern reader, due in large part to being cited twice on Karl Edward Wagner’s list of the thirty-nine best horror novels; once for “Supernatural Horror” with The Yellow Mistletoe and once under the category of “Science Fictional Horror” with The Flying Beast; (both titles available from Ramble House).
Perhaps no other author epitomized the eclectic nature of the British thriller better than did Masterman, beginning his career with the ingenious (if prosaic) mystery The Wrong Letter, which featured a laudatory introduction by no less a luminary than G.K. Chesterton, the author of the “Father Brown” mysteries; and quickly progressing to the rationalized supernatural horror of The Green Toad to the his first full-blown supernatural novel, The Yellow Mistletoe.
What was truly unique about Masterman’s novels was the frequency with which he utilized a recurring main character in a wide variety of stories. Sir Arthur Sinclair of Scotland Yard is introduced in The Wrong Letter, and weaves his way through several additional novels ranging from the straightforward mysteries to his masterpieces of over-the-top mayhem like The Flying Beast and The Yellow Mistletoe.
To use a reference point from the realm of science fiction, Sir Arthur is Robert Heinlein’s competent man cast in detective. Not only is he a master of ratiocination, but if the occasion warrants, also a man of action. If there’s a criticism, it would be that as he character evolves, the more mundane sort of mystery doesn’t seem to pose much of a problem; Sinclair needs the larger stage of globe-trotting adventure in order to really shine. It’s in novels of the fantastic such as The Yellow Mistletoe (wherein Sinclair not only encounters a lost race, but winds up as their leader!) and the equally bizarre novel featuring a gothic mansion, super science, and a race of troglodytes (The Flying Beast) where both Sir Arthur and the author are at their best.
After his sojourn in Bulgaria, Sinclair returns in several more adventures, but he’s not the only character of Masterman’s to encounter the outré. We have Inspector Jackson dealing with the seemingly supernatural menace of The Green Toad (1929); and the present title featuring Inspector Dick Selden of Scotland Yard. While Selden is a much younger man than Sinclair, he displays the same gifts for detection and the vigor to deal with the multiple murders committed at Cold Stairs.
As many readers of Masterman know, his present day fame is due in large part to the inclusion of The Flying Beast and The Yellow Mistletoe on both the Wagner List and in 333. For those not familiar with 333, it is an early (1953) reference work compiled by Joseph Crawford, James Donahue, and Donald M. Grant, subtitled “A Bibliography of the Science Fantasy Novel”. Of course, it covers three-hundred and thirty-three books; and despite over fifty years having elapsed since its publication, it remains remarkably useful even today. However, there are some curious omissions, among them being what is arguably one of Masterman’s very best novels, The Border Line.
So how did this remarkable book get overlooked by these early scholars and by the very knowledgeable Mr. Wagner? I think we may well have the same situation here that I discussed in the case of Mark Hansom, (a contemporary of Masterman’s, who has one selection on the Wagner list, and is omitted from 333 entirely). Many of the British thrillers were targeted to the lending libraries; a situation that had the advantage of reaching a wide audience, but also had some huge disadvantages for the modern collector. Standard procedure for new acquisitions included not only gluing card pockets and placing the library’s stamp throughout, but also removing the dustjacket and discarding it. From that point on, the books were in for rough handling and many volumes were literally read to pieces. Thus, in the case of Masterman’s 1930s titles, enthusiastic readers destroyed the majority of copies.
However, this doesn’t account for the U.S. editions published by E.P. Dutton; we can only assume that with the plethora of domestic mysteries issued by this publisher, the U.K. reprints had comparatively small printings. However, when we look at scarcity in regards to Masterman’s works, all of these titles that received simultaneous U.K./U.S. publication are still far more common than his last six novels, all of which were published only in British editions.
These last six books are impossibly rare; in twenty-odd years of collecting and researching Masterman, I have only seen one (The Death Coins) offered for sale. To my knowledge, only the British Library holds copies of the other titles, which is a shame, as in summary these titles sound very promising. Interestingly enough, after introducing a younger detective in the present book (Inspector Dick Selden), Masterman drops him and returns to using Sir Arthur Sinclair in his last six novels. For those of you who finish this volume wanting to see more of Inspector Selden, have just a bit of patience; Inspector Selden makes his return in the novel I’m currently working on. The book is a direct sequel to Richard E. Goddard’s The Whistling Ancestors, but also links to Mark Hansom’s The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Colossus of Ylourgne”.
The Hooded Monster (Feb 1939)
The Curse of Cantire (Apr 1940):
The Death Coins (May 1940)
Back from the Grave (Nov 1940)
The Silver Leopard (Jul 1941)
The Man Without a Head (Mar 1942)
Their rarity and possibly that of the British edition of The Border Line (1937) has an explanation which goes far beyond the lending library scenario. In the case of the first five, we know that among the many targets destroyed in the Blitz, the warehouse district took a particularly hard pounding and this was the site where thousands upon thousands of new books awaiting shipment were stored. This would account for titles published through 1941 and for the unsold inventory of the earlier books. In the case of the 1942 novel The Man Without a Head, it was probably a victim of both wartime paper shortages and the public’s diminished interest in the grim and grotesque amid the all-too-real horrors of war.
We can also promise that the search for these books continues and that when they eventually turn up, you can be assured that new editions will be issued under the Dancing Tuatara Press imprint. However, for the time being, I’m delighted to bring you this novel of murder, intrigue, and science gone horribly wrong. Enjoy!
All Hallows — 2009
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