THE RIDDLE OF R.R. RYAN

 

Well, at long last Iím getting to write the introduction for new edition of Freak Museum, a book that Iíve wanted to publish since I started in this crazy business in 1986 . . . Ever since Karl Edward Wagner wrote up his list of the thirty-nine best horror novels, R.R. Ryanís books have been an obsession for me. Going on Karlís description (followed up by Ramsey Campbellís excellent essay on Ryanís novels), these books sounded like they would be worth every penny of the small fortune that was being asked for them when one turned up in a catalog. (Thereís nothing like singing the praises of a rare book in a widely read column to send collectors into a feeding frenzy and drive the prices up). I donít know what you might have paid for a Ryan novel before Karlís column, but any copies that surfaced afterwards were priced in the hundreds. For readers conversant with Karl Edward Wagnerís list of the thirty-nine best horror novels, the name of R.R. Ryan holds a place of special significance. Only Ryan and the brilliant German, Hans Heinz Ewers are represented by three selections . . . In fact, Ryan pulls off the hat trick of being listed in all three categories; best supernatural novel with Echo of a Curse, best non-supernatural novel with The Subjugated Beast and finally, best science fictional horror with Freak Museum. Several other authors, (Nigel Kneale, Walter S. Masterman, Fredric Brown, and John Dickson Carr) are honored with two entries, but Ryan and Ewers are the only ones with three. In all fairness, the list was never intended to be a real ďbest ofĒ; rather it was a bully pulpit that Karl used to call attention to authors that he felt might well be unknown to modern readers.  In that capacity it succeeded wondrously well and not only rekindled an interest in authors such as R.R. Ryan, Mark Hansom and Walter S. Masterman but stimulated scholars and collectors to seek out other authors who might have been overlooked . . . Iíve pretty much made a career of continuing Karlís work by restoring to print works by dozens of authors who might otherwise be forgotten in our modern world wherein books have a shelf life of only two weeks before they have the covers stripped for credit and the guts of the book tossed in a dumpster.

In 2002 Midnight House brought out a new edition of Echo of a Curse, with an excellent introduction by D.H. Olson that speculated on the identity of the mysterious person behind the Ryan pen-name. Olson agreed with Ramsey Campbell who had earlier surmised that behind the Ryan pen-name hid a female author; basing this hypothesis on the fact that the female characters were exceptionally well-drawn, much moreso than their male counterparts. Since Iím not the sort to throw a couple of my best friends under the bus, Iíll admit here and now that I agreed with this assessment 100%. Later articles by eminent scholars in the field seemed to indicate that we were dead wrong . . .

Some years later a lengthy essay was published by two gentlemen who claimed to have solved the mystery and at last revealed the identity of the mysterious author. This essay postulated that ďRyanĒ was the popular British stage actor Cameron Carr. Sadly, this is close to the truth but later research indicates that this too was wrong . . . So too was the biblioflub that considered R.R. Ryan to be the same as one Rachel Ryan, who would have been authoring these rather lurid novels in her eighties or nineties . . . 

So what do we really know about the author? Well, at long last the identity of R.R. Ryan has been revealed . . . Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan, the daughter of Evelyn Bradley, the playwright. It is very likely that Evelyn Bradley had a hand in at least the early novels. By the time of Freak Museum, itís likely that Ms. Bradley-Ryan was flying solo as she was in the next decade when she turned out four novels under the byline of ďKay SeatonĒ. The source for this information is none other than the authorís son, whose word is good enough for me.

How then to explain paperwork that would seem to indicate Evelyn Bradley as the author? Quite simply, publishing was a chauvinistic business then and any number of accomplished female authors found it prudent to hide behind a masculine or neutral pseudonym. C.L. Moore, Donald Dale, and many more.  The reality was that a male author likely commanded a much better advance and then thereís the subject matter . . . While there was a storied tradition of genteel ghost stories by women such as J.H. Riddell, Mrs. Oliphant, Eleanor Smith, Alice Perrin, D.K. Broster and many, many more the content and tone of the Ryan novels was far closer to the Grand Guignol excesses of the American weird-menace pulps than to the spectres of the traditional ghostly yarn.   I think it can safely be assumed that Denice Bradley-Ryan called on her father to help with the writing of some of the earlier novels and most definitely had his help when it came to placing the novels with Herbert Jenkins.

Without a doubt, Echo of a Curse, Freak Museum, and The Subjugated Beast are masterpieces of horror, and in terms of their content and general tone, as far ahead of their time as were the weird menace tales of authors such as Wyatt Blassingame, Donald Dale, and Ralston Shields. Of the other novels, Devilís Shelter is essentially a less imaginative dry run for Freak Museum, Death of a Sadist is a fair-to-middling melodrama and The Right to Kill an interesting failure. No Escape is simply brilliant, though completely devoid of fantastic elements. The other novels which are credited under the Cameron Carr by-line include Gilded Clay and The Other; these are fine novels but to my view somewhat toned down from the powerful prose of the best Ryan books.

Freak Museum as a novel is kin to the weird menace pulps that were being published in America at the same time. The basic premise of the weird menace genre was to trot out a menacing figure that seemed to be supernatural in nature and then in the last couple of pages provide a rational explanation for the seemingly supernatural events that had occurred up to this point. By use of the mad scientist, Ryan makes the novel qualify as a work of weird menace, though the tone of the novel is quite different from the brooding sense of dread that one would get in a story by Arthur Leo Zagat or Hugh B. Cave. In fact, for most of the first four chapters we might just as well be reading a shop-girl romance, what with our plucky Irish heroine, unmarried, but in a family way (as was the terminology of the times). There is one scene where we see our first freak, a creature sprouting a beastís head from its chest, but this is quickly passed over and the same cheery tone continues.

Then in the last few pages of Chapter Four we meet the Octopus . . . The Octopus is one of the great villainous characters in all of thriller fiction, in the fashion of the bad guys from Chet Gouldís newspaper strip, Dick Tracy where hideously warped features were a sure indicator of a mind that was every bit as twisted as the exterior. Yes, the Octopus can stand alongside the great villains of the pulps such as A. E. Appleís Mr. Chang, Dr. Satanís legless henchman Bostiff, and the numerous malformed and mentally warped characters that paraded through the pages of Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories and Terror Tales. The Octopus is only a henchman, but this grotesque character steals the spotlight in every scene in which he appears.

Other freaks range from the prosaic to the incredibly grotesque, one is not likely to forget encountering ďthe StomacheĒ. In terms of plot, Freak Museum is a much more ambitious treatment of the earlier ďDevilís ShelterĒ, with the grotesque elements ramped up to the nth degree. Were it not for the rather slow opening and the very British tone, the story could easily have been serialized in Dime Mystery right along with similar works by Hugh B. Cave, Arthur Leo Zagat, and Wayne Rogers. The rational explanation of motives and events that moves the book tenuously into the realm of science fiction is as implausible as the sort of endings that were tacked on by weird menace writers like J.O. Quinliven (an entertaining author who frequently wrote himself into a corner and would have to rely on a deux ex machina to set things right.) If there is a weak point to the book itís that there is so much energy expended on bringing the freaks to life that the detective heroes of the book are by comparison cardboard cutouts.

This is a minor flaw as Ryan seamlessly combines the elements of the weird-menace tale with the espionage novel. Adding the element of espionage is a perfectly logical thing to do in a war-time novel, but I feel that it was unnecessary and that part of the charm of Echo of a Curse is that no attempt is made to provide a rationalization for seemingly supernatural occurrences.  One does wonder if Ryan ever attempted the US markets. Of all of the novels, Freak Museum and Devilís Shelter would seem almost perfect for Rogers Terrill at Popular Publications, save for the fact that editor Terrill detested serials, and during his tenure at Dime Mystery, Terror Tales and Horror Stories he only ran one, the brilliant historical piece, The Curse of the Harcourts by Chandler Whipple (available from Altus Press). So unless truncated versions were offered, there might not have been much of a market in the US. Of course, we have yet to discover whether or not Ryan authored any short fiction of any type. For what itís worth, there are nearly a dozen authors who show up in the weird menace magazines that Iíve been unable to conclusively identify, so it is quite possible that behind one of these names stands Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan. As the author seemed to compartmentalize her work, itís certainly a good possibility that any short stories would have appeared under a byline reserved for that purpose. Many thriller authors who had established themselves as reliable producers of novels totally eschewed the short story. The great Mark Hansom only wrote one short story that we know of, and another contemporary, Walter S. Masterman authored only a handful of short stories, so itís quite possible that the author we know as R.R. Ryan was strictly a novelist.  If thatís the case, then Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan certainly left a remarkable legacy that places her among the masters of the form. While three of her best novels have now been reprinted, it is important to note that all of them are well worth reading and it is our intention to ensure that a new generation of readers has that opportunity. And there are still many, many questions to be answered about this remarkable author . . .

John Pelan

Yuletide 2012

Gallup, NM