The MYSTERY OF MARK HANSOM

 

Welcome! Since you’ve tracked this book down, we have to assume that you are somewhat familiar with either (a) the work of Mark Hansom, (b) my work as an editor when it comes to bringing obscure works of mystery or the supernatural back into print, or (c) you were browsing the Ramble House site and saw Gavin O’Keefe’s remarkably cool cover for this book and decided to take a chance on it.

I’m guessing that (a) or (b) or perhaps both is the more likely scenario. This book concludes the Dancing Tuatara Press program of reprinting all of the supernatural thrillers authored by Mark Hansom; a program that began in 2001 with the publication of The Beasts of Brahm under my own imprint, Midnight House, and continued by Ramble House, beginning with the publication last year of The Shadow on the House and followed by Sorcerer’s Chessmen, The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey, The Ghost of Gaston Revere, and finally, this present title. All of Hansom’s supernatural volumes are now in print; the Dancing Tuatara Press titles from Ramble House (e-mail enquiries to fender@ramblehouse.com; (The Beasts of Brahm is still available from Midnight House, e-mail jpelan13@gmail.com for ordering information.)

If this is your first Hansom, you’re starting with the book I personally consider his best novel. There’s some difference of opinion on this, of course. The late Karl Edward Wagner cited Hansom’s first book, The Shadow on the House as his best book, naming it one of the thirteen best non-supernatural horror novels of all-time. However, even this is open to debate as Karl admitted to me that at the time he composed his lists, The Shadow on the House was the only Hansom book he had encountered at the time. Karl later went on to acquire all of Hansom’s novels, but I never did get a chance to find out whether or not he had revised his opinion.

What makes this book edge out the others by just a bit is the strength of the characters. Both of the antagonists are sharply delineated and the Egyptian Woman, while interacting only minimally with the hero and having no dialogue at all until the last thirty pages of the book manages to be one of the most unforgettable figures of menace in horror fiction. Her colleague, Leon Morzetti (the Master) is a more typical Hansom villain; versed in both science and the dark arts and is the figure that we see the most of throughout the tale. 

The recurring motif of the dead exerting influence and even absolute control of the living began in Hansom’s 1935 novels The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey and The Ghost of Gaston Revere. Leon Morzetti is cut of the same cloth as Paul St. Arnaud and Gaston Revere; a man of science also versed in the dark arts and obsessed with personal immortality. Hansom was an author who enjoyed looking at a theme from different angles until he had wrung all possibilities out a concept and while Sorcerer’s Chessmen also addresses this theme, he really achieved his peak with the present volume that also involves the resurrection of another major character.

So how is it that such an accomplished author of the supernatural thriller is practically unknown today? For starters, Hansom’s novels were along with Wright & Brown’s other thrillers were targeted to the lending libraries, a situation that guaranteed that most copies were literally read to pieces.  Whereas the US marketplace already had a small but healthy group of collectors of fantastic fiction, encouraged by the letter columns in the science-fiction pulps and The Eyrie in Weird Tales, the UK had no such equivalents in their own magazines that dealt with macabre fiction such as Hutchison’s Mystery Magazine. While there were certainly collectors of the works of Dunsany, Blackwood, and Machen; the work of the thriller authors such as Mark Hansom, Arlton Eadie, R.R. Ryan, and Jack Mann were denigrated much as were the authors of the weird menace pulps in the US. Add to this the tragic situation of the bombing of the warehouse district during the Blitz and you have the proverbial three strikes. (1) A target market that made no effort to preserve the books, (2) A lack of collectors making an effort to preserve the books, (3) The dual wartime situations of paper-drives occurring simultaneously with the destruction of warehoused copies of the books. So great was the destruction that author H.B. Gregory told me that of his novel Dark Sanctuary only review copies and a handful of “colonial orders” escaped destruction.

Indeed, were it not for Everett Bleiler’s superhuman research efforts reflected in his Checklist and Karl Wagner’s subsequent laudatory comments about The Shadow on the House, it’s very likely that Mark Hansom would remain unknown today. In fact, the greatest mystery of Mark Hansom is the identity of the man himself.

For those of you that have been following my efforts at literary detection from the start, I’m sad to report that after twenty some years of studying “Mark Hansom’s” prose I’m no closer to establishing his identity than I was a decade ago. For those of you just getting on board, I’ll bring you up to speed as quickly as possible . . .

We know that there was no such person as “Mark Hansom”. Several theories by other scholars have gone down in flames. The idea that “Mark Hansom” was yet another pseudonym for the prolific Charles Cannell (known to Ramble House readers and others as “Jack Mann”), was eliminated by examining one of Cannell’s literary “tics”. Cannell was extremely enthused by all things relating to aviation and would frequently digress to provide lengthy descriptions of the airplane his characters were riding in. Cannell was well-traveled and his settings display the little details that one would expect from a man who had actually visited the places he’s describing.

Another idea put forth (and this one had even less substance), was that “Mark Hansom” and “Rex Dark” were one and the same. The person who came up with this concept expounded on it by saying that “Hansom” was used for supernatural novels and “Rex Dark” was used for the straightforward mysteries. All well and good except for some of those annoying facts that gets in the way. First, there are no stylistic similarities between the two writers at all. Secondly, neither The Shadow on the House or The Madman are supernatural, so we must exclude a full third of the author’s output from the equation. I’m afraid that this particular bit of literary detection displays a level of chuckleheadedness not seen since the glory days of Sam Moskowitz.

This brings us back to my own theory, woefully incomplete as it is. From a consistent authorial point of view it would seem likely that the man writing as “Mark Hansom” was the scion of a wealthy family sent out to learn the world of business via the time-honored gentleman’s profession, publishing. This was not an uncommon practice, perhaps the most well-known case being that of Sir Charles Birkin whose stint as an editor at Philip Allan brought us the acclaimed “Creeps Series”. The dates also correspond with a break in writing and publishing activities to account for service during WWII. The last clue is the issuing of abridged editions of Hansom’s work after the war by Mellifont. Mellifont, a reprint house that never had a penny that couldn’t be pinched, would be very unlikely to go to the trouble of having an editorial assistant rewriting a book to save a few pages. On the other hand, if the author himself were available then that’s a whole different situation . . .

Until we have proof to the contrary, I’ll stick with this theory, and hope that one day employee records from both companies turn up and we can see who worked at both firms during the appropriate times. For now, we have Mark Hansom’s wonderful thrillers as well as the puzzle of the author’s identity. What we do know for certain is that Mark Hansom was a true master of the supernatural thriller and that after nearly sixty years of being out of print his work is available to entertain a new generation.

 

John Pelan

Midnight House

Gallup, New Mexico

All Hallows — 2010