Mayhem & Madness in the Works of R.R. Ryan
In 1937 in the U.S. pulps the weird menace genre was at the very pinnacle of its popularity. “Weird Menace” has come to define a peculiar sub-genre of horror characterized by seemingly supernatural events that almost always proved to be the machinations of a deranged individual bent on spreading terror and madness, usually for some sort of financial gain. The genre was further characterized by (for the time) fairly explicit sex and sadism. Starting off as a prose homage to the Grand Guignol Theatre of Paris, the sub-genre evolved from the arch-Gothic to a more taut modern style before ultimately imploding in the early 1940s.
Across the Atlantic the genre appeared but because there were no specific periodicals devoted to the form, most novels appeared under the general catch-all of “thrillers”. The thrillers were novels, published with the target market of the lending libraries. A “thriller” could be anything from supernatural horror to espionage to police procedural to psychological horror or melodrama or a combination of any of these elements. Cheaply produced and literally read to pieces, any number of these works have vanished forever. Among those that have survived to considerable acclaim are the works of authors such as Walter S. Masterman, Mark Hansom, and of course, R.R. Ryan.
For many years R.R. Ryan was somewhat of an enigma. The first book, a routine pot-boiler, The Right to Kill, was published in 1936 and provided little indication of the much greater works to come. In recent years we’ve learned that behind the Ryan pseudonym was theatrical manager Evelyn Bradley, something which came as a huge surprise to many scholars in the genre, myself included, as for years it had been believed that Ryan was a woman, based on the remarkably well-defined female leads in the novels. As we’ve since learned, “Ryan” actually launched his career over a decade earlier with the publication of The Tyranny of Virtue under the pen-name of Noel Despard.
Devil’s Shelter (1937) is the fourth of Ryan’s novels, and the first of what might be considered his mature works. Somewhat unfairly, the book has acquired the reputation of being a “dress rehearsal” for the later (and quite superior) Freak Museum. The main protagonist, London stage-actress Divina Mason, is a headstrong, but not terribly sensible heroine in the tradition of Mary Bootle (The Right to Kill) and, to a lesser extent, Edna Ferrar (Death of a Sadist). While not as out and out stupid as Mary Bootle, she does manage (in best B-movie tradition) to consistently opt for the most questionable courses of action. Tired of her life and her deadly dull fiancé, Carter Sudeley, Divina simply jumps into her car and leaves town, telling no one of her plans (and, in fairness, not really knowing herself). Driving at random along English backroads, she becomes lost, suffers an automotive breakdown, and finds herself soaked to the skin in a tremendous downpour. Then, in classic Gothic and Weird Menace tradition, she is forced to seek shelter at the nearest habitation she can find, a massive castle-like edifice in the middle of nowhere.
The building is soon revealed as “Dr. Beaucaire’s Home for the Mentally Disordered,” and any concern Divina feels for her new surroundings are quickly allayed by the suave, attractive alienist, Dr. Beaucaire. Of course, things are not exactly as they seem, and even Divina’s suspicions are eventually aroused by the odd behavior of certain staff members and her inability to either leave the building or gain access to a telephone.
Since this is a Ryan novel, it should come as no surprise to anyone that things are far worse than Divina can possibly suspect. As with most of Ryan’s work, the main plot line is far less important than the background upon which it is cast. Here one can see for the first time the author’s obsession, not just with sadism—but by madness in general. If her earlier novels were sparsely populated, here she has unleashed a host of colorful characters, most of them quite mad. Yet, the question of what is madness is never far below the surface, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference, at least at first glance. Hoffman, the nurse, appears quite sane, until she starts talking of her murdered—and non-existent—baby. Paul Kingslake is also quite rational, at least when he’s not barking like a dog.
As we’ve previously discussed, the Ryan oeuvre breaks down quite nicely into three very distinct groupings. At the top of the pyramid, we have the brilliant, represented by No Escape, Echo of a Curse, and Freak Museum. This trio is followed by the good, which includes The Subjugated Beast, Death of a Sadist, and the present volume; and then finally, the barely readable The Right to Kill.
With the relatively recent revelations of additional works under the names of Cameron Carr and John Galton (all of which would fit into the “good” category) we find that the present book, far from being a “dress rehearsal” for Freak Museum stands firmly on its own merits as a very good, if flawed, novel. Devil’s Shelter is hardly a great novel, but it is quite entertaining and would have made a superb grade-B horror movie. It also shows, for the first time, just how unique Ryan’s perspective could be when removed from the confines of the Edwardian morality-novel.
Two other elements are also of note. The first is Ryan’s use of black humor. Little trace of this can be found in his earlier work, but it abounds here. One striking example is in the persona of Curtis, an armless inmate who refuses to admit that he has no arms and flies into a rage whenever anyone dares to suggest the truth. The villain of the piece takes special delight in torturing the hapless man by asking him to perform simple tasks for which hands are a clear necessity. Curtis’ perplexity and confusion are both heart-rending and hilarious at the same time.
The second item, of somewhat lesser importance, may be found in the character of Arthur Flower, the “bull-headed man.” In the one case where the novel serves as a dry run for Freak Museum, Arthur Flower is as warped in body as he is in mind. Unlike his fellow inmates, Arthur is not just a mental case, but a true freak of nature as well, his physical deformity setting him apart from his fellow patients. In him, one can actually see a foreshadowing of what Ryan would later attempt on a much grander scale in Freak Museum.
While Devil’s Shelter fails to attain the heights of a truly weird classic of the level of Echo of a Curse or Freak Museum, it remains a very solid work of weird menace fiction that can stand proudly aside the works of Bradley’s best American counterparts such as Wyatt Blassingame, Arthur Leo Zagat, and Ralston Shields. We feel that you’ll agree that Devil’s Shelter, if not a classic is at the very least one of the more memorable horror novels of the 1930s.
John Pelan & D.H. Olson