Re-Opening the Tomb
WELL, NOTHING IS quite so enjoyable as finding that I have to apologize for errors in the introduction to J.M.A. Mills’ previous novel, The Tomb of the Dark Ones, as well as offering up various and sundry clarifications as new information on the author has become available. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
As it develops, Janet Melanie Ailsa Mills was considerably more prolific than I had suspected, having forged a dual career under the by-line of “H. K. Challoner”. Under the Challoner pseudonym we find quite a variety of work, including Watchers of the Seven Spheres from Routledge, The Wheel of Rebirth: Some Memories of an Occult Student, The Sword & the Spirit: A Study of the Inner Meaning of the War (in collaboration with P. G. Bowen, to whom the present book is dedicated), two collaborations with Roland Northover—and even a self-published volume of poetry! So, why would I be happy about discovering errors in my work? Very simply, it means that we have discovered that more fiction by this wonderful author exists, and, while there are cer-tainly no guarantees as to genre, style, or content, the possibility that another weird novel of the caliber of The Tomb of the Dark Ones or its sequel exists.
Under her own name, Ms. Mills had at least three other books published, with at least two of them appearing to be novels: Marsh Fires (John Lane, 1928). The Way Triumphant (Hutchinson & Co., 1927) and, finally, There Will Your Heart Be… (Andrew Dakers, 1945). Of course, attempting to guess the content based on a title is playing a mug’s game. But, taking a look at the publishers involved, we know that John Lane was certainly not unsympathetic to weird fiction, with issues of William Beckford’s phantasmagorical classic Vathek and Hanns Heinz Ewers’ decadent “Frank Braun Trilogy” published around the same time, to say nothing of their translations of Paul Busson’s weird novels, The Man Who Was Born Again and The Fire Spirits. As for Hutchinson’s, as the publisher of the UK equivalent of Weird Tales (Hutchinson’s Mystery Magazine), they were certainly kindly disposed to the idea of weird fiction. And, finally, Andrew Dakers was the original publisher of this volume; so based on the usual output of these three publishers, all three could very logically make a home for a weird novel.
However, as is often the case, Mills discovered (as had Elliott O’Donnell before her) that the audience for her non-fiction was much, much larger than that of her readers of fiction. So, following the classical advice “write what you know”, Mills put most of her energies toward texts on Theosophy and related matters. How-ever, being a believer is a double-edged sword. On the one hand these personal spiritual convictions lend a verisimilitude to one’s fiction that simply cannot be precisely duplicated by a non-believer. However, there is also the disadvantage the writer faces that what is obviously “true” and “real” to them is not necessarily a viewpoint shared by their readers—which leaves the author treading a fine line between providing entertainment and convincing their readers of the validity of their personal belief system.
Mills was a skilled enough author to avoid anything that smacked of trying to convert her readers, which is the surest way that I know to kill off an audience. If we look only at the novels that we know of, we come to the conclusion that Ms. Mills was a dilettante and must have been writing for her own amusement. However, once we look at her work as H. K. Challoner, and realize that several of the Challoner books are considered such essential reading on their subject that they are still in print today, a rather different portrait emerges: that of a serious student of the occult who also knew how to tell an effective story when she wanted to. Our main regret as readers is that her interest in writing fiction took a back seat to her more serious work.
I’m often asked how does happen upon an author like J.M.A. Mills? I touched on this briefly in my introduction to the companion volume, The Tomb of the Dark Ones, where I mentioned the classic ways that readers (and publishers) are able to find similar materials. Obviously, if Author A has written a book that you liked a great deal, then you owe yourself and Author A the investment of time and money on one of their other books. The not-so-obvious trails to follow are those of editor and publisher. If you’re one of those folks who watch the job-hopping frenzy which is the publishing industry, then you’ve no doubt noticed that when certain marquee names at the Senior Editor level move to another company, a number of “their” authors will soon follow. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with the business; if you as an author or editor are blessed to be working with an editor who understands you, then you know that such an individual is worth following to the ends of the Earth.
So, tracking who acquired what can be a valuable way of making new discoveries. As a reader, once you discover an editor or two whose tastes seem to match your own, it’s well worth seeing what properties they acquire next. What should be the most obvious path of discovery is—surprisingly enough—the least-used (unless the publisher is really hitting you over the head with their branding, but more about this later). Let us see how one book that actually saw little, if any, distribution took us down the path that led to the publication of the book that you hold in your hands.
It started (as it often does) with the Wagner List. For those of you who have been following the editor or the imprint, you al-ready know the story of the late author/editor Karl Edward Wagner’s lists of the thirteen best horror novels in three different categories. For those of you hearing the term for the first time, the short form is that a friend and mentor made lists of his favorite novels and selected some really obscure titles to shake folks up a bit. (You can Google the whole story.)
Among the titles listed was H. B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary. As it so happens, my good friend and co-editor of our R. R. Ryan titles, D.H. Olson, owned the only copy that we knew of in North America. He brought the book to a World Fantasy Convention where we intended to present it to a chap who had just started his own small press. Oddly enough, when presented with what would certainly have been a shot in the arm for his fledgling company, he seemed completely disinterested and wandered off. Olson and I stared at each other for a moment, and I finally broke the awkward silence with: “I guess he has other plans—how about I do it?”
Dark Sanctuary, which is in tone and style a Lovecraftian novel done from a Judeo-Christian perspective, proved to be a very popular title—so much so that it didn’t require much of a push to get me to investigate what other titles had come from this publisher. The Bleiler Checklist of Science Fiction and Supernatural Fiction remains the single most useful tool for this type of research—though it would be much more pleasant were it available as an e-book, where searches would take a matter of seconds as opposed to a matter of hours. However, without that option available, the only thing one could do was read through each entry looking for “Rider” or “Andrew Dakers” (to this day I don’t know what the relationship between the two publishers was, but the cross-over of authors is so extensive as to almost suggest that they were the same company).
While a tedious process, some titles started to pop up almost immediately, including two novels by ghost-buster Elliott O’Donnell (who as it turns out was a very fine fiction writer), a pair of novels by Gunnar Johnston, what appeared to be a novel by Golden Dawn luminary J.W. Brodie-Innes, an “occult horror nov-el” by well-known mainstream author G. Firth Scott, and interesting sounding titles by authors such as Warrington Dawson and Barnard Balogh, as well as the backlist of Bram Stoker. Now having acquired a list of titles, how can these be researched other than taking the plunge and buying an expensive book? Bleiler’s own Guide to Supernatural Fiction is useful if one factors in Bleiler’s severe deficiencies as a critic and works around them (based on his “reviews”, Bleiler didn’t just grow out of touch; he had always been somewhat of a sanctimonious, humorless prig who could think of no worse an insult than to call something “commercial fiction”). The same book denounced as such in 1920 would be lauded as a “minor literary classic” had it been published thirty years earlier.
A far more useful (for me) tool is George Locke’s three-volume set, A Spectrum of Fantasy; the set is nothing more or less than the bio-bibliography of George’s collection, which might seem more than a bit pretentious until you realize that George’s collection is as much a history of the genre as anything. If a volume has earned a place in his “permanent collection”, it’s because it is an item of quality. (George was/is one of my mentors in book collect-ing/selling, so it’s presumably okay for me to reveal that in both of our cases, there is really no such thing as a “permanent collection”; there are simply items that we value far over market and would be unlikely to let go for anything approaching a reasonable price.) Also, no one truly owns rare books—one merely gets to be their custodian for a period of time.
Anyway, in most cases, George provides the standard biblio-graphic information as well as a line or two regarding the literary aspects of the book. What makes Spectrum truly a valuable reference is George’s penchant for finding titles not included in Bleiler, or titles purged between the first and second editions. To more accurately comply with the title of the checklist, Bleiler dropped somewhat over a thousand books that were rationalized supernatural. Asian menace, mysteries featuring a borderline super-criminal, and things of that nature. If you were to say: “But isn’t that sort of the sweet-spot of the Dancing Tuatara line?”, you would be quite accurate; so any reference that provides insight on these “lost” books is quite welcome.
So, in summary, starting with one intriguing title listed by Karl Edward Wagner many years ago, we’ve followed the ins and outs of the trail through Rider’s publishing history and unearthed some dozen titles as a result. You’ll be seeing the results of this search and others over the next few months. Who knows, we may even find another weird novel by J.M.A. Mills!
Thanksgiving Day, 2015