by Mark Hansom
Welcome to the weird world of Mark Hansom, one of Great Britain’s premier authors of the supernatural thriller! As this introduction only appears in the Dancing Tuatara Press edition, you’ve obviously taken a little trouble to track this book down, as Mr. Hansom’s work is somewhat obscure these days, previously (with the exception of The Beasts of Brahm) only available in the fantastically rare and expensive original editions. The first editions were all published by Wright and Brown and targeted to the lending library market in the late 1930s. Mellifont reprinted several of the books in brutally truncated form in the early 1950s. So desirable is Hansom’s work to collectors that even the abridged volumes command prices of several hundred dollars. Fortunately, the good folks at Ramble House have encouraged me to include all of Hansom’s thrillers under the Dancing Tuatara Press imprint.
The world of publishing is a far different creature than it was in the days before WWII, when Hansom was active. Whereas the US market had the pulp magazines, where every variety of thriller had titles devoted to specific sub-genres, the British publishers offered up the much more generic category of “thriller” and produced inexpensive hardcover books for the lending libraries.
Mark Hansom was active in these halcyon days before the folks in marketing had taken over the publishing business and rather than pigeonhole everything into narrow sub-genre categories to make the salespersons’ job easier, the broad term of “thriller” was utilized to describe everything from mysteries to supernatural horror to lost race adventures, westerns, and even science fiction. Mark Hansom wrote “thrillers”; mostly of the supernatural variety. His first novel (The Shadow on the House) is a masterpiece of psychological horror, and it’s only at the denouement that the reader realizes that the implied supernatural activity may well have a rational explanation. I shan’t spoil things by telling you which is actually the case, but recommend that you read the novel for yourself, as the book is now available from Ramble House under the Dancing Tuatara Press imprint, and you can read it for yourself. Only one other of his novels was non-supernatural, and is still atmospheric enough that it would have been right at home in one of the US weird menace pulps such as Horror Stories or Thrilling Mystery.
Hansom’s first novel, The Shadow on the House, was very well-received, with a US edition being “published” by William Godwin involved swapping out the copyright page and binding up the signatures in the Godwin binding. This first novel has all the atmosphere of the supernatural, but in the end is rationalized, as was his later book, The Madman. Other than this one departure, the rest of Hansom’s work is fully in the realm of the supernatural and Hansom demonstrates an all-too-rare talent in the genre, the ability to sustain the element of growing dread at novel length.
Hansom pulls this feat in a rather unique manner: He introduces his cast of characters, a fairly conventional cast; you have the hero, his friends, the young damsel who will soon be in distress, and the antagonist; generally a hyper-competent individual with a scientific background who exhibits two common characteristics: (1) He is infatuated with the heroine, regardless of her attachments elsewhere; and (2) Despite his scientific background, he is mucking about with the occult and things that man was never meant to know . . .
At first glance these would seem to be the elements of a routine potboiler and nothing that would account for the high esteem that Hansom is held in by those few lucky enough to have read his work. Where Hansom diverges from the routine and carves out his own niche in the annals of supernatural fiction is through a recurring motif that figures in The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey, Master of Souls, The Ghost of Gaston Revere, and the present novel, Sorcerer’s Chessmen”. After introducing his antagonist and setting the stage for him to make his first attempt at taking possession of the heroine, Hansom has the villain killed off, generally in the first third of the book!
Where this would seem to be a colossal mistake on the level of Doyle’s duel between Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls or Michael Moorcock’s destruction of not only his protagonist (Elric), but the entire universe at the end of Stormbringer; however, in this case Hansom’s actually not writing himself into a corner, but is opening the door to having his villain transform from merely human to a force that is far more dangerous in its post-corporeal form. To reveal any more would be to spoil not only the present book, but three of his other novels as well. Suffice it to say, that in each case, Hansom puts an interesting spin on this element that makes each novel a compelling read.
Of his seven novels, his first, The Shadow on the House (also available from Ramble House) was named by the late Karl Edward Wagner as one of the thirty-nine best horror novels of all-time, joining such works as Dracula, Fingers of Fear, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Death Guard, Dark Sanctuary and Echo of a Curse . . . Illustrious company indeed! A few years after his article on these books appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine, I had occasion to discuss the list with Karl and ventured that in my opinion, as good as The Shadow on the House was, I thought that Hansom had topped it with both Master of Souls and Sorcerer’s Chessmen . . . Karl did go on to acknowledge that at the time of the article, The Shadow on the House was the only Hansom novel that he had read. He didn’t say whether or not he agreed with my assessment, but it certainly remains a possibility that if he had revisited the list a few years later another Hansom novel or two may well have been added to the list.
So who was this inventive and vastly entertaining author, and why did he stop writing in 1939? The fact of the matter is that no one really knows for certain . . . Even though I was responsible for his entry in the encyclopaedia Supernatural Literature of the World, I was unable to include more than a brief bibliography and some conjectures as to what may have become of him . . . We do know that “Mark Hansom” was a pseudonym; there are no records of a person with that name being born (or dying) in the United Kingdom that could have been the author. The man writing as Mark Hansom began his career in 1934 and his career ended almost to the day that Great Britain entered the Second World War. Assuming that he was a young man in mid-to-late twenties at the time it’s not at all unreasonable to think that he may have died in the service of his country.
Another possibility is that “Hansom” was the pseudonym for another author working the field, or possibly someone employed in some capacity at Wright & Brown. What suggests this possibility is the program of reprinting abridged versions of his novels undertaken by Mellifont in the 1950s. Certainly it’s possible that a contract was entered into by his heirs, but considering the extensive revisions done it would seem more likely that Mellifont had a living author to work with. For what it’s worth, the revisions are so brutally cut as to be pretty much incoherent. One simply can’t cut a 250-page book to 96 pages and retain anything resembling the power of the original. The fact that some collectors will pay hundreds of dollars for these literary butcheries is baffling to me. Fortunately, we have The Beasts of Brahm in print from Midnight House and this novel and The Shadow on the House available from Dancing Tuatara Press, with The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey, The Ghost of Gaston Revere, and Master of Souls scheduled to appear in 2010.