The Real Ghostbuster
Despite some truly great authors of regional ghost stories in the U.S. (among them Russell Kirk, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkens-Freeman, G. Ranger Wormser, to name just a handful), the ghost story has always seemed to be the province of the United Kingdom. Nowadays, when we hear “ghost story” we’re likely to think of M.R. James or perhaps Algernon Blackwood. After all, one is arguably the greatest author of ghost stories ever, and the other might just be the premier fantasist of the twentieth century. However, such word association results are very much a thing of their time. It’s a safe bet that if you were to say “ghosts” to any of His Majesty’s subjects in the first half of the twentieth century the answer would almost certainly be “Elliot O’Donnell”!
To this day it’s impossible to go to the occult section of any used bookstore and not see at least one of his books on the shelf. The author of over fifty books, host of radio and television programs dealing with the supernatural, O’Donnell would have been right at home on today’s Syfy Channel heading up a team of supernatural investigators.
What made O’Donnell’s accounts of “real” hauntings so popular was the fact that he eschewed a straight reportorial style in favor of a more vigorous prose that would well serve any writer of fiction. In point of fact, there’s good reason to think to most (if not all) of O’Donnell’s reports of hauntings came from his own fertile imagination . . . After all, O’Donnell was not a member of the Society for Psychical Research, nor did his papers reveal any notes or research germane to investigating specific hauntings. An entertainer or an investigator? What sort of man was Elliot O’Donnell?
An Irishman claiming descent from the near-legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages and Red Hugh O’Donnell (not unusual in itself, anyone named “O’Donnell” can claim kinship with Old Niall, just as anyone named O’Brien/O’Brian may claim Brian Boru as an ancestor . . . We Irish are sort of obsessive about that stuff . . .) O’Donnell claimed to have had his first experience with the supernatural when he was a small child, seeing a ghost or “elemental” when he was but five years of age. Some years later, a being of some sort attempted to strangle him. Whatever the events that actually occurred, they were sufficient to instill a life-long passion for the supernatural in young O’Donnell.
O’Donnell attended Clifton College and then returned to his ancestral home of Ireland to Queen’s Service Academy in Dublin. After completing his studies, O’Donnell spent some years in the United States, working at various trades ranging from cowboying in Oregon to serving as a police officer in Chicago.
O’Donnell didn’t try his hand at writing until his early thirties, when he successfully placed For Satan’s Sake with Greening of London. This was followed by The Unknown Depths: A Tale, an interesting occult novel of Egypt (to be published by Dancing Tuatara Press in 2013). Another novel of the occult, Dinevah the Beautiful followed in 1907, but it was in the next two years that O’Donnell found his true calling with the publication of Some Haunted Houses and Haunted Houses of London. Prior to being gathered in book form, O’Donnell’s articles on “true hauntings” appeared seemingly everywhere from publications such as the Weekly Tale Teller to Hutchinson’s Mystery Magazine, Pearson’s and The Idler. Both books were far more successful than his novels and despite authoring the present volume and several short stories, so successful were his “non-fiction books” that with the exception of a handful of short stories, O’Donnell didn’t really return to fictioneering in a big way until The Dead Riders in 1953.
The reader will no doubt have noticed my somewhat prejudicial use of quotation marks with regards to “non-fiction” and “actual hauntings” and the like. I may be being a bit unfair to the author, who is no longer around to defend himself, but I have a strong belief that the majority of these accounts originated in O’Donnell’s imagination, or at the very least were local legends related to him that he embellished to the point that they made for entertaining reading.
The art of turning regional folklore and legends into prose fiction is a long-standing one and an example that was likely well-known to O’Donnell is J.E. Muddock’s volume Stories Weird and Wonderful (re-issued in an expanded edition by Midnight House in 2004). Better known under the byline of “Dick Donovan”, Muddock was an extremely popular author of mystery fiction (rivaling Arthur Conan Doyle in The Strand), but Stories Weird and Wonderful was filled with embellishments of local myths and folk-tales related to Muddock during his walking tours of the Continent. It seems likely that O’Donnell, upon realizing that these accounts, properly edited and offered up as “true”, commanded an even larger audience than did the same material presented as fiction saw a literary niche screaming to be filled. And fill it he did . . . From 1909 until 1958 O’Donnell authored over thirty books devoted to “actual hauntings”, many of these volumes enjoyed multiple printings.
Unlike many books of the time, The Sorcery Club is still eminently readable today, due in large part to O’Donnell’s knack for pacing and dialogue that moves the story along. It should be noted of the latter that O’Donnell had a keen ear for how people actually spoke, and conveys it warts and all. Many novels of the time are bogged down due to the characters making speeches to one another as opposed to actually conversing. O’Donnell neatly avoids this pitfall, but in this era of political correctness, some may find certain slang usages and terms to be objectionable (I know that I certainly did), however, it has always been my policy to print what the author wrote, considering our readership to be astute enough to recognize a product of its time when they see it.
This says nothing of the hundreds of articles, radio, and television appearances that saw O’Donnell come to be considered the world’s foremost authority on ghostly phenomena and a bona fide celebrity. Sadly, amidst all the hoopla and hyperbole we lost a terrific author of supernatural fiction. We certainly can’t fault O’Donnell for choosing the path that provided a good living for himself and his family while his contemporaries that stuck with supernatural fiction struggled along getting a penny a word for their efforts; but we can bemoan the novels never written and the myriad short stories that never graced the pages of Weird Tales, Strange Stories, Beyond, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Of course, O’Donnell did have three appearances in Weird Tales and he had several tales featured in Charles Birkin’s seminal “Creeps Series”, but there could have been so much more. Readers of this book will see that O’Donnell was an author who could sustain a mounting sense of dread at novel length (not an easy task).
I do hope to someday gather all of his short stories together in book form as O’Donnell definitely fits the criteria of being a “lost master” of supernatural fiction. Of his novels, the present volume and The Dead Riders are, in the opinion of most, his two strongest efforts, but there is much to reward the reader who seeks out copies of Dinevah, the Beautiful and The Unknown Depths: A Tale. We realize that due to this novel’s status of being in the public domain, there are any number of cheaply produced editions thrown together without proofreading available from companies that feel scanning a text and slapping covers on constitutes “publishing” . . . Despite the competition from these fly-by-night parasites we felt that The Sorcery Club is an important novel of the occult that deserves a place on your shelf alongside such other classic works of supernatural fiction as Ronald S.L. Harding’s The Library of Death, Mark Hansom’s Master of Souls and Sorcerer’s Chessmen, H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary, and Herbert Asbury’s The Devil of Pei-Ling!
And now, it’s time to call this meeting of The Sorcery Club to order! Enjoy!
Midsummer Night’s Eve
Gallup, New Mexico