ECHOES OF R.R. RYAN
Eleven years have passed since the publication of the Midnight House edition of Echo of a Curse by R.R. Ryan. Not surprisingly, as Echo of a Curse is arguably Ryan’s masterpiece, that edition has long been out of print. In the intervening years a funny thing happened: after all this time R.R. Ryan’s true identity was revealed―or was it?
Let me back up a bit for those just coming on board. R.R. Ryan first came to the attention of modern readers via the famous list of the thirty-nine best horror novels authored by Karl Edward Wagner. Ryan was notable for appearing in all three categories, non-supernatural horror, supernatural horror, and science-fictional horror. Obviously, Mr. Wagner thought rather highly of Ryan and his recommendation was sufficient to get other “students of the game” such as Ramsey Campbell, D.H. Olson, and myself to seek out Ryan’s work for ourselves.
What we found was impressive. Wagner had not overstated the visceral power of Ryan’s novels; they ranged in quality from terrible to brilliant, with the mid-range material still being pretty good by any standards. Now here’s where it started to get real interesting.
R.R. Ryan seemed to be a complete cipher, no information on the person behind the name seemed to be available. At first there was conjecture that the author was “Rachel Ryan”, who had written one novel many years before the R.R. Ryan books appeared. Years of literary detection followed, with scholar James Doig finally producing evidence that the author was theatre manager and playwright Evelyn Bradley, who also wrote under the names Cameron Carr, Noel Despard, and John Galton. There the matter would seem to rest until contact was made with descendants of the author, one of whom claimed that “R.R. Ryan” was actually Bradley’s daughter, Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan, who authored several novels under the name of “Kay Seaton.”
So who was R.R. Ryan? There’s an intriguing blurb from “Kay Seaton’s” publisher commenting on her father helping her with her books. What does that mean? Were all of the Ryan and Seaton novels collaborations? How about the others? Thus far I’ve only had the opportunity to read one Seaton novel to compare styles and from that small a sample size I can’t be 100% certain. My gut feeling is that the first R.R. Ryan book was a solo effort by Bradley as was the Noel Despard novel. The strong female characters that are hallmarks of Ryan’s work began appearing with Death of a Sadist and got progressively better as more books appeared. At this point it seems pretty clear to me that everything from Death of a Sadist on was likely a father/daughter collaboration. It’s also interesting to note that after Bradley’s suicide in 1950, no further books appeared, though it is of course quite possible that Bradley-Ryan used another pseudonym which has yet to come to light, it seems more plausible that without her long-time collaborator she simply gave up on fiction writing.
The present book is considered by me and several other Ryan aficionados to be his/her masterpiece. At this point I’ll bow out and turn the introduction over to my colleague D.H. Olson . . .
The elevation of R. R. Ryan into the pantheon of collectable but forgotten authors is due solely to the efforts of one man: Karl Edward Wagner. All of the Ryan titles populating the numerous “wish lists” that often vex collectable book dealers are based on his own lists of “Neglected Masterpieces” from Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983. The Wagner List, as it has since come to be known, was made up of three separate lists of thirteen books each. Ryan, then completely unknown, has the distinction of being the only author to appear on all three lists. Those listings, with their short descriptive paragraphs, are worth quoting here:
Of Echo of a Curse, Wagner wrote: “Undeservedly forgotten, Ms. Ryan was the best of the British thriller writers—a group who wrote popular fiction for the lending libraries, roughly parallel to the pulp writers in America between the world wars. This novel of lycanthropy and vampirism rates with Fingers of Fear as one of the best.”
If Ryan was aware of the flaws in both The Subjugated Beast and Freak Museum, it’s clear that she learned from her mistakes. Echo of a Curse (1939), her sixth novel, is the first of Ryan’s works to be so essentially flawless as to be considered a true classic. It is also the first, and only, of her novels that is inarguably supernatural. True, both The Subjugated Beast and Freak Museum include passages that border upon the para-normal, but neither clearly crosses over that line, at least not to the extent of Echo of a Curse. While it would take some doing, it would even be possible to argue that both earlier novels are mainstream, their more fantastic elements readily explainable by more mundane (or psychological) means. A stretch perhaps, but not an impossible one.
Not surprisingly, Echo is full of themes and characters familiar from earlier novels. Mary Border is in the classic tradition of Ryan heroines: not stupid like Mary Bootle in The Right to Kill, but rather unexceptional, and given to bad choices made worse by a highly-developed, and some might say out-dated, sense of honor and propriety. Terry Cliffe, the man she should have married, is also cut to the traditional Ryan pattern: a nice man, bound by his own strong sense of duty to the woman he loves. Like Robert Litherland, in that earlier novel, his loyalty to Mary goes beyond what would normally be considered reasonable, while his own sense of morality and propriety is above reproach. To this is added the character of Vincent “Vin” Border, and with him the perfect R.R. Ryan triangle is thus complete.
Vin, not unexpectedly, is another quintessentially Ryan character: the sadist and madman. Yet, Vin is also more than that. In fact, he is one of Ryan’s most finely-drawn, well-rounded and memorable characters. His sadism is intense and disturbing, far over-shadowing earlier Ryan creations like Selwyn Maine or Boris Gregorovich. But Vin also has a softer side and, at odd moments, the reader can hardly help but feel a twinge of sympathy and even respect for his poor, tortured soul. He is also the first of Ryan’s characters in whom true growth can be seen over the course of a novel, an achievement made all the more amazing by his obvious inhumanity in other respects.
To this “romantic triangle,” Ryan adds hints of vampirism and lycanthropy, an ancestral “curse,” and repeated references to THE INEXPLICABLE, a hideously deformed side-show freak. She also returns to the use of a two-part story line, with the second half of the action occurring many years after the events of the first.
Ramsey Campbell, in his article on Ryan in Necrofile, speculates that Ryan also wrote Echo of a Curse while under the influence of, or at least after becoming familiar with, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Such may not be provable, especially as Ryan makes no references to anything explicitly Lovecraftian, but a careful reading of Echo’s text does provide a strong circumstantial case in support of such influences. Note, for instance, the ceremony of “The Black Commune” early in Book Two, or the appearance of Mr. Govina in the next chapter:
“An odd figure awaited her. Tall. Drooping. Gaunt—in so far as one could judge; for, despite the time of year, the visitor was swathed in wrappings. Immediately Mary had a strong revulsion from her guest, who stood strangely still, strangely impersonal. Round his mouth was woven a muffler of soft, fine material. His head was bare, revealing a tough-looking black thatch, which was almost too coarse for human hair and resembled nothing so much as what is known in theatrical circles as a scratch wig. Perhaps, Mary thought, it is a wig. He may have lost his hair. With his mouth definitely concealed and his eyes masked by special dark glasses, which had side-flaps to prevent all hurtful rays reaching his eyes, the stranger’s face reminded Mary of a carving rather than of a human head. One hand, she observed, was gloved, the other not. There seemed, for an instant, something baleful in his stillness. It was impossible to determine the newcomer’s age.”
Shades of Henry W. Akeley in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or Randolph Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”!
Another implicit reference may be found in Chambers’ belief in a “foul, forbidden world,” that rides “parallel with ours and which was inseparable from the unimaginable vast in whose enormity we are lost.” Yet another passage, even more indicative of the authors having been contaminated by the taint of Lovecraftian Yog-Sothothery, may be found at the very end of Book One, when reference is made to Vin’s unorthodox religious beliefs and his discussion of them with his daughter, Faith:
“. . . But it was also true that at times he told her queer fables, propounded impossible doctrines of eternal life. And these tales of future existence were far from being founded upon orthodox principles of religious people, but were odd, outré, grotesque. Mankind in the bulk died — but there were those who need not die. The secret was vouchsafed to few; but he, Vin, possessed it. He would live forever and Faith should share his eternity.”
Other, classic Ryan sub-plots are also very much in evidence: the untimely pregnancy, a World War I setting for some of the early action, decaying family finances, animal abuse. Also still in evidence is a trace of the Weird Menace influence so prevalent in Freak Museum. The first half of Curse is definitely not for the squeamish and is, in many respects, far more disturbingly perverse than anything written in the sixty-two years since. The “puppy episode” and the earlier tableau in which Terry discovers the true, violently dysfunctional nature of Mary and Vin’s relationship, are scenes that retain the power to shock even after all these years. Moreover, their power is such that, once experienced, they will not be soon forgotten by any of Ryan’s readers.
John here again. We plan on releasing all of Ryan’s novels as well as the four thrillers that appeared under the “Kay Seaton” by-line. The current plan is to issue two books at a time, so that the companion volume to this book will be the flawed, but still exciting, Death of a Sadist. In this economy, few people want to spend their money on a literary curiosity. In the case of R. R. Ryan, the novels break down like this: Echo of a Curse and No Escape masterpieces; Freak Museum and The Subjugated Beast excellent; Devil’s Shelter and Death of a Sadist flawed, but still well-worth reading; The Right to Kill okay—I’ll be completely honest, this merits the designation of “literary curiosity”—it has not one but several major flaws and in the final analysis is a failure. For readers wanting to see just how far the author(s) came from such inauspicious beginnings the novel is a case study that shows just how many mistakes a writer can make and learn from them.
However, enough about R.R. Ryan’s worst book. You have in your hands one of her two best. Enjoy!
John Pelan and D.H. Olson
New Mexico and Minnesota
Ides of March 2014