OPENING THE TOMB
This volume is one that will amply reward the reader with an excellent story and also allow me to expound on one of the facets of collecting that (surprisingly) gets ignored. The British publisher, Rider & Co. is known mainly as a publisher of books on the occult and a good deal of theosophist nonsense. Now, don’t get me wrong, with what I do for a living I tend to read lots of books on the occult (I mean really, lots and lots), many of which were published by Rider or another great imprint, Andrew Dakers & Co., however, something that has served me very well over the years is the advice from one of my mentors in book collecting/selling that “when you encounter the words “Atlantis” and “reincarnation” in the same paragraph, it’s time to set the book down and go on to something else . . .) The aforementioned worthies also published a number of tomes that proved the truth of this adage.
What does any of that have to do with J.M.A. Mills? Well, Ms. Mills was apparently a true believer and authored several books on the “truth” of such matters, she also wrote two exceptional novels (the present volume and a loose sequel) that used her vast knowledge on the subject to very good effect. This latter fact has become misquoted over the years as “she wrote two books”, this notion can be readily disabused by using any of the book-search engines on the Internet, she actually wrote quite a few, but sadly only two that will be of interest to us.
Mills is an author that I can claim to have discovered in large part on my own, backing up my findings by consulting with George Locke of Ferret Fantasy. One of the things I learned from George is mentioned above as “that facet of collecting that (surprisingly) gets ignored; if you’re not interested in this, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.
One of the very first things we learn as readers or collectors is that if we enjoy a certain book, it is likely that the author wrote other, similar books during their career. However, with the exception of specialty presses whose intent is well known to all, a lot of folks skip over the subjects of time-period and imprint, or even editorial direction. Some exceptions would be in the mass-market paperbacks in the post-WWII years up through the 1960s and 1970s. You would have to be pretty obtuse to not realize that Gold Medal Books was a good place to find crime novels and Ace an excellent place for science-fiction, westerns and mysteries. However, for those of use that grew up in the era of publishing giants, we weren’t inclined to apply this logic to seeking out publishers’ catalogs; sure there were the occasional smaller publishers such as Ballantine that one could turn to for books on several specific subjects, but for the most part the hardcover publishers weren’t given the same sort of scrutiny.
One of my mentors, who was of considerable help in my putting together a complete run of the “Creeps series” (actually, more than complete, as there are several related titles that are of interest to collectors of supernatural fiction, after all, Charles Birkin was an editor there in the years prior to WWII and put together the “Creeps series”, it only stands to reason that he would acquire similar titles), asked me point-blank if I had researched publishers’ catalogues and suggested that in addition to Philip Allan (the “Creeps” publisher), I might look at some other British publishers from that time period, one being Rider & Company.
Well, those of you that have been following DTP books know of Rider as the original publisher of H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, I knew of Rider as the publisher of Elliot O’Donnell’s excellent supernatural thriller The Dead Riders and Warrington Dawson’s The Guardian Demons, so the suggestion made sense. Using the advanced search feature on abebooks I tried the Internet version of browsing through a used bookstore, I pulled up all titles from 1900-1960. Whoa, way too many to read through so I tweaked the search by adding the keyword “novel”. This would certainly miss books that weren’t fully described by content and might show only the wares of the priciest dealers that did enter full descriptions of content as well as condition, but after making my original list, I could always go back with titles in hand and search for more inexpensive copies.
Several promising titles showed up, the most intriguing being Tomb of the Dark Ones by one J.M.A. Mills. Checking an indispensable reference book, George Locke’s A Spectrum of Fantasy, I found a listing of the book and its sequel, Lords of the Earth. I should perhaps mention that the only copy of the book that turned up was priced at $500.00, a bit rich for my blood, not knowing if the quality was there (recalling spending $150.00 on the Dawson book only to be vastly disappointed, I wasn’t about to spend that kind of money if it could be avoided.) As it turns out, I was able to borrow a copy through inter-library loan and make a Xerox of it. My searching under Mills’ byline also turned up a book described as a “sequel” to Tomb of the Dark Ones, but made no use of the word of the word “novel”, this latter I was able to acquire at a far more modest price.
The same methodology when applied to Herbert Jenkins, Modern Publishing Ltd, and others of that era yielded similar worthwhile results. I should mention that “vastly disappointed” in the Warrington Dawson book is perhaps a bit unkind. The book is worth reading, and there are some atmospheric scenes that are as good as anything you could imagine in a supernatural novel. The problem is with the use of the term “novel”. As a novel it just doesn’t really deliver; it is more a collection of scenes, excellent when depicting supernatural occurrences, fairly weak when it just has characters sitting around talking. Someone should have told Dawson that it’s quite possible for people to communicate with each while doing something.
Anyway, enough of that, this is supposed to be about Janet Melanie Ailsa Mills. Since much of her work was done for occult publishers even smaller than Rider, I can’t be certain that we have a complete bibliography, and I’m not about to try, but I will detail some highlights. Mills also wrote as “H.K. Challoner” and a number of her non-fiction works were being reprinted as recently as last year by the Theosophical Publishing House and similar imprints.
The earliest book that I can locate is The Way Triumphant, (Hutchinson, 1927), apparently a novel and because of the publisher, it’s on my list to investigate further. Next up was Marsh Fires the following year. Then in 1933 one of her most popular works, almost perpetually in print since then, Watchers of the Seven Spheres. Her detour into fiction again came with the present book in 1937, with Lords of Earth following in 1940 from Andrew Dakers, Ltd. Tomb of the Dark Ones went through at least two printings indicating at least some level of success, but the timing of Lords of the Earth couldn’t possibly have been worse; not only was England at war, but the German bombers destroyed much of London’s warehouse district and thousands and thousands of books were destroyed making anything published in 1939-1940 somewhat scarce. In the case of small imprints such as Rider and Dakers, nearly entire print runs were destroyed.
Harry (H.B.) Gregory author of Dark Sanctuary told me that only those copies sent out for review to Canada and Australia escaped destruction; in fact, he had to send the publisher one of his three author copies in the hopes of securing a sale to a foreign publisher. While J.M.A. Mills’ two novels are by no means that scarce, they are certainly uncommon. Whether it was disappointment at the sales of Lords of the Earth or simply a lack of interest, Mills did not revisit the realm of fiction, though she kept writing almost until her death in 1986.
J.M.A. Mills joins Elliott O’Donnell as an author that ably demonstrated a gift for dark fiction, but spent most of their career writing “non-fiction”. In the case of both authors, they gave us two wonderful novels and we can only wonder at what might have been had the muse called them in a different direction.