The Mysterious Mr. Harding
The list of British thriller authors from the 1930s includes a number of skilled yet nearly forgotten authors who specialized in treading the ground between the overtly supernatural and those that featured a rationalized explanation of events. Included in this small but illustrious group are Walter S. Masterman, James Corbett, Arlton Eadie, and Ronald S. L. Harding. While both Masterman and Corbett wrote a number of straightforward mysteries, their most intriguing novels are those that kept the reader guessing as to whether or not supernatural forces are actually at work. These novels were paralleled in the U.S. by the “weird menace” magazines typified by Horror Stories, Terror Tales and Dime Mystery Magazine; where authors such as Arthur J. Burks, Wyatt Blassingame, and John H. Knox were the standard-bearers of the genre. Without a similar venue, the British authors focused on full-length novels as opposed to the novella or novelette of the prevalent in the U.S.
Splendid examples of this type of yarn include Masterman’s The Green Toad and The Curse of Cantire and Corbett’s Vampire of the Skies. However, the one author who truly excelled at this type of novel was Ronald S.L. Harding. Little information on Harding is available, and his books are at least as scarce as those of contemporaries such as Mark Hansom and R.R. Ryan.
Whereas the U.S. had the pulp magazines, the market in the U.K. was quite different, with the thriller novels being marketed primarily to the lending libraries. While this strategy generated a wide readership it also accounts for the scarcity of these titles. One of the unfortunate circumstances of this program was the fact that books were literally read to pieces; another factor was the library policy of immediately removing and tossing out the dust jackets of all new arrivals. Some publishers, such as Wright & Brown produced a sturdy if plain product that held up to the multiple readings. Ronald S. L. Harding had the misfortune to be published by London’s Modern Publishing Company, an imprint known for both their volume of titles and the shoddiness of their product.
Were these conditions not enough to ensure the survival of only a very few copies of Harding’s books an even more devastating circumstance was the bombing of the warehouse district during the blitz. In some cases, entire print runs were destroyed; (the author of Dark Sanctuary, H.B. Gregory told me that of the 400 copies printed of his classic horror novel the only copies that survived were his personal copies (3) and perhaps a dozen or so copies that had been mailed to reviewers in Canada and Australia.)
We have been fortunate enough to secure copies of two of Harding’s novels and with luck, we ought to be able to track down at least a couple more of the half-dozen novels known to exist.
The Library of Death begins at a leisurely pace, and a tone that seems to set the stage for a light romance. Harding deftly builds the mystery and from the moment we learn of the legend of a headless spectre that purportedly stalks the grounds and rumors of hereditary vampirism the novel undergoes another transformation with the light tone of the early chapters forgotten as horror is piled upon horror. . .
Harding handles these transformations with a sure hand drawing the reader along a path that leads from the prosaic into a setting where not only does the supernatural appear to be possible, but probable.
The novels of Ronald S. L. Harding are long overdue for rediscovery my modern readers and with the publication of The Library of Death and its companion volume, One Dreadful Night Dancing Tuatara Press has taken the first steps in introducing the works of Ronald S.L. Harding to a new generation of readers.